Promising Young Woman, written and directed by Emerald Ferrell

I had to see this a second time after reading an interesting New Yorker review from the perspective of a woman who has seen a lot of rape revenge movies, and revenge movies in general. The first time I saw it, I enjoyed the movie but found it a bit strange, with an unsatisfying ending. After reading the review, I realized what it was I had missed.

The premise is that she (Cassie) and her best friend Nina were both going to medical school, when Nina had to drop out because she had been gang raped at a frat party where she was shit faced drunk. Cassie was not there at the time, a small detail which is probably at the core of Cassie’s personality. Cassie dropped out to help Nina, but it was to no avail. Nina killed herself. Now, some nine years later, this woman who was on course to becoming a great doctor goes out every weekend, pretends she’s falling down drunk, and accepts the aid of all the “nice guys” who want to help her get home safely, but then decide that they’ll have their way with her. She then suddenly comes to, reveals that she’s completely sober, and basically scares the shit out of them.

(Don’t read anymore if you hate spoilers. I’m going all the way to the end of the movie.)

Sometimes the person is someone who has a connection to what happened to Nina and sometimes not: A woman named Madison (played by Alison Brie) didn’t believe the story and/or blamed Nina for getting that drunk; A lawyer (played by Alfred Molina), who has helped young men get out of sexual assault charges for most of his career; and a college dean who says to Cassie that the college has to give these boys the benefit of the doubt and that she doesn’t remember the case from nine years ago because they get so many of them (she says this without irony).

But it seems, generally, that she has just chosen to live this way — of going out and scaring “nice” guys who turn into predators when she looks helpless and drunk. She keeps a book of conquests — basically slashes — and it appears that she’s done this to possibly hundreds of guys in Los Angeles. (I assumed it was L.A. but the script doesn’t say.) She lives with her parents and works at a minimum wage job as a barista. She’s angry and has decided to stay angry. Even Nina’s mother, (played by Molly Shannon), tells her that her anger isn’t helping. But I think the anger hides a different aspect which calls to mind the old joke, “Two lesbians were making out and a guy walked by and said, ‘Are you sisters?'” Cassie was in love with Nina and Nina was in love with Cassie. Whether this was ever sexual is irrelevant. They each had a half heart with the other one’s name on it.

Bo Burnham plays a guy named Ryan who gets probably the only sympathetic male part in the movie. He shows up, recognizes Cassie as that promising young woman and they start dating because he genuinely seems kind. Cassie seems to be healing in his presence. But even with him, there was something really bothersome about a scene in a pharmacy where he starts singing to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind,” in a jokey way, but also in a way that made you feel that Cassie simply can’t go that route. Paris Hilton represents all that’s wrong with the world. The “promising” of the title has vanished. She is simply a 30 year old woman whose love was raped and killed herself because of the trauma.

When the guy who caused that trauma (Chris Lowell) returns from England and Cassie learns he is about to be married and have a wonderful life, she also learns that a video was made of this assault, shared with many people and still exists. She watches it and discovers that Ryan was there, laughing and ogling with a little bit of Billy Bush awe. So her world has ended, once again, and she decides to take the ultimate revenge by pretending to be a stripper and crashing the bachelor party for Al. She intends to carve Nina’s name into his stomach, first by sending him up to the bedroom and then by drugging (with vodka shots poured directly into their mouths) all the friends who are celebrating. In the bedroom she handcuffs Al to the bed and as she reveals who she is and what happened to Nina he starts screaming for help that isn’t coming because they’re all passed out downstairs. Just before she manages to start carving Nina’s name into his stomach, he manages to break one hand free of the cuff and overpowers Cassie, smothering her in one of the longest death scenes I think that’s ever been filmed. It’s gruesome and meant to be. He even screams “Stop fucking moving!” as he’s killing her, as if she should just go quietly. You keep thinking maybe she’ll jump up and not be dead, but she doesn’t. She is very much dead. His friend Joe comes up in the morning, and when Al tells him that he killed the stripper, Joe asks, “Is the 90s?” Until he takes the pillow off her head and sees it’s true. Together they burn her body somewhere deep in the woods.

And then the wedding happens. It’s an absurd wedding, with lots of weird dancing and horrible vows. The lawyer she previously went to harm and ended up forgiving instead, receives a package saying that she is probably dead, explaining everything she meant to do, and that she was probably killed by Al. In the package is the half heart Nina would have worn around her neck with the name Cassie on it. They do a search for her body and find the ashes, as well as the necklace she was wearing with the name Nina. The police invade the outdoor wedding and arrest the groom. Ryan, who is attending the wedding, receives a series of scheduled texts. “You didn’t think this was the end did you?” and then finally “love Cassie and Nina.” That was another thing I missed the first time. She also committed suicide, to be with Nina. The New Yorker review pointed out the similarity of this ending to Thelma and Louise, which has divided so many people. Way back when women all over San Francisco and probably in cities everywhere were wearing shirts that said, “I am Thelma,” or “I am Louise,” as if their drive over the canyon cliff was a happy ending. Men tended to disagree and saw it as tragic.

But as this movie makes very clear men also tend not see sexual assault as much of a big deal as women do. They elected a man who has been sued by 26 women who have said he assaulted them. Probably hundreds more who he kissed without their permission, or squeezed their ass cheek, or something else. And still they supported him. Because they don’t care about misogyny. Assault is just a misunderstanding. Boys will be boys.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.