This revenge story isn’t quite what you would expect, but it gets the job done.
Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) is a 30-year-old medical school dropout who lives with her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) and works at a coffee shop under her friend Gail (Laverne Cox) and starts dating her former classmate Dr. Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham). Cassie dropped out of college along with her friend Nina when Nina was raped and the school refused to do anything about it, leading to Nina’s apparent death. Every weekend, now, Cassie dresses up and pretends to be drunk in order to trick random “good guys” (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Adam Brody, Sam Richardson) into taking her home and trying to have sex with her without her consent, prepared to punish them for what they’re doing. This, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. It turns out that Cassie is planning on getting back at all of the people involved in Nina’s case, ranging from the women who didn’t help her (Alison Brie, Connie Britton) to the lawyers (Alfred Molina) to the men involved (Chris Lowell, Max Greenfield).
It’s interesting to me that I have gone back and forth repeatedly about whether or not this is a great movie, but I cannot question that it is an effective movie. I’m not sure exactly what the term is for what this movie does, likely because I don’t have any formal schooling in theater or film, but it clearly is designed to make you think about it more than most films. I’d say it is similar to Bertolt Brecht in that the film is designed in such a way that you can’t quite be pulled into it the way that you would with most other films, but instead of doing so by eliminating the fourth wall, this film does it by constantly subverting your expectations on every level. Rather than being able to pretend to be an unseen viewer into the story, the film tries to force you to analyze yourself and those around you in relation to what’s happening by constantly keeping you on your toes.
First, the casting is intentionally done to be against type. All of the guys in this movie that Cassie ends up confronting are usually either love interests or fun best friends in films (Adam Brody, for example). They’re actors who seem harmless and non-threatening, which makes it all the more impactful when we see them start to grope a half-aware woman. In contrast, the guys who we actually can kind of trust are mostly cast by people who play villains, like Clancy “The Kurgan” Brown, which adds to that same effect.
Second, much of the film is based around slow reveals that not everything is what it seems. While the advertising and the opening scene suggest that Cassie is doing is quickly revealed to be slightly different than reality, and the film keeps changing things just enough and not quite explaining everything directly enough that you keep being forced to think about the narrative and that’s how the film gets you in a mindset to contemplate.
Third, the cinematography in many of the scenes are designed to make the audience feel like they’re the bad guy or girl. The confrontations are often directly at camera, making us empathize not with the heroine, but with the people she’s forcing to think about their actions. It’s a brilliant technique, particularly when combined with the other elements above. It compels you to think about your own actions in the past, even, or especially, the ones that you justified to yourself at the time.
More than trying to tell a complete story (although it does that as well), I think this movie was designed to affect the audience in ways that few movies do. It’s making you think about your real life and your actions, whether you’re a man or a woman, and it does it very effectively.
The performances are all fantastic, particularly Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham. Their chemistry is so strong that it allows for their relationship to move forward in a fairly rapid montage without it being at all distracting. It’s also strong enough that you can buy that a woman who is focused on getting back at men could really find a romantic interest in one.
Overall, without going into spoilers, I think this is a movie that everyone should see. I’m not sure that it’s a great movie in the traditional sense, but it is doing something effectively that many movies can’t. That’s impressive.
ON THE SOFA WITH THE JOKER AND THE FACELESS OLD WOMAN
So, after watching this, we started talking and, after having a fairly long discussion of the movie, we decided that maybe we should convey our back and forths rather than just talking about the film separately.
Faceless Old Woman: Hey stranger.
Joker: Welcome back to the Sofa.
FOW: Well, I do live here.
JotS: Somehow I always forget that. Possibly due to the whole faceless thing.
JotS: In any case, Promising Young Woman. When we saw this, you already knew the ending. Do you think that’s something people should be warned about?
FOW: I read a spoiler for the ending because a critic who saw it at Sundance thought the ending was a reason not to watch the movie at all, and when I read it I thought that maybe they were right. Having now watched the movie, I don’t really agree. I definitely would say that anyone who’s experienced sexual trauma or violence needs to be warned that this movie could be really upsetting or retraumatizing to them. If they really want to see the movie and think that reading a synopsis would make it easier for them to handle, they should.
JotS: Do you feel that knowing the ending spoiled the effect for you? I personally didn’t see that coming and it was pretty profound, but I don’t know that it would be any less impactful if it wasn’t a surprise.
FOW: It’s hard to compare an experience I didn’t have with one I did have. I did feel stressed out and on-edge while watching the movie because I knew where it was going, but that could have been even worse if I didn’t know. It was still an extremely upsetting scene to watch, if that’s what you mean.
JotS: Yeah, that’s what I meant. Side Note: I’ve already put up the spoiler warning, but if you got to this point here’s your second chance to bail. … Okay, well, for those of you who watched the movie or are just reading this, at the end of the film Cassie is killed by Alexander Monroe, the same person who raped her friend Nina years before. I get why people might view that as a reason not to see the movie.
FOW: It’s more complicated than that, because Cassie turns out to have a full contingency plan for her murder that leads to Alex’s arrest. So that’s clever and humorous in a very dark way. Still, at the end of the day, two dead women. It’s not the healthiest message, that you should let a traumatizing event completely consume your life and then you should be willing to die to get the ultimate revenge. On the other hand, that’s such a classic story, so am I unfairly penalizing this movie because I’m worrying too much about these implications?
JotS: I think it’s appropriate to worry about the fact that the movie ends on a note like that. Sure, Alexander is going to jail, but, when you think about it later, Cassie literally tried to cut him with a scalpel after handcuffing him to the bed. He’s rich and there’s a good chance he’d either win a self-defense claim or that he’d plead down to a lesser charge, even after burning Cassie’s body (which is also a crime, kids). But I think this is part of the movie trying to get your attention more than provide a good example of how to deal with trauma. And that ending DEFINITELY gets you thinking. I don’t know that I’ve considered the implications of a film’s ending this much in a long time and I do these every day.
FOW: Specifically, I remember it made an impression on you that Alex was able to kill her when he was only able to free one arm and Cassie had a scalpel.
JotS:I mean, yeah, that’s kind of a horrifying thing I would never consider. Alexander isn’t like a big, muscular guy, and he’s able to kill a woman with only one arm. Guys don’t realize that women are probably very aware of that power disparity. If I were to walk behind a woman on the street, I wouldn’t think about it at all, but she might be on edge because, despite the fact that I’m only maybe average strength for a man, I could probably overpower her. That’s fucking insane and half of the population lives with that all the time.
FOW: Insert reference to the John Mulaney bit where he realizes he’s chasing a woman through the subway station without intending to.
JotS: Speaking of comedians, let’s talk about Bo Burnham.
FOW: See, possibly because I knew the ending, Ryan’s (Bo Burnham’s character) situation is what actually kept me awake at night.
JotS: I cannot blame you. For those of you who are reading this, it’s revealed that Ryan had been a witness to Nina’s rape (which he had seemingly forgotten). Later, after Cassie is killed, he lies to the police about her disappearance. Now, this is a woman whom he had dated for months and claimed to love, but he flat-out lies to the cops about her, knowing full well that she’s probably dead, all just to cover his ass. That’s some dark shit.
FOW: Well, yeah, that was what I said, what you pointed out was that they did a really good job of setting him up as a very likeable, sweet, handsome, charming guy in the first place. The thing that kept me awake at night after watching it was the reality that someone who says they love you, that you’ve let your guard down to trust, someone who’s met your parents, would hurt you to save their own ass. That’s a pretty terrifying reality.
JotS: Yeah, you don’t expect Bo Burnham to be the bad guy. You particularly don’t see it coming after they even make him out to be the injured party when he sees Cassie on one of her weekend revenge outings. You understand completely why he was hurt by this and you feel like he’s the good guy when he forgives her. This movie is built around throwing your expectations off.
FOW: It’s subverting an audience expectation (and as you’ve pointed out there’s a lot of that in this movie) but it’s also about our own expectations in these situations. The movie is already pointing out that there are people you’re told you can trust, like your female friends or the female dean of your school. You’re told those people will have your back when you tell them that something happened to you. Girl power, right? And the movie explicitly shows the reality is they might not! In the worst ways! Secondly, we get an early hint that Ryan has issues when, on his first date with Cassie, leads her right to his apartment and then springs that fact on her. It might seem cute but it’s actually very pressure-y!
JotS: Yeah, but we also see him recognize that she doesn’t like that, realize immediately that he has messed up, and try to apologize and fix it, something that we often see male protagonists do in rom-coms. This movie kind of makes you recognize that a lot of stuff we’re accustomed to seeing in films is actually not great to serve as a cultural example of behavior. And yeah, a big part of this film is that you absolutely never know who a person really is on the inside. One of the only characters who actually recognizes his mistakes is the lawyer, a character that is typically the ruthless one.
FOW: Oh hey Alfred Molina, didn’t expect to see you here.
JotS: Yeah, that’s another subversion. The guy who usually plays villains is the one with the conscience.
FOW: You pointed out they do that with pretty much the whole cast of this movie.
JotS: AND IT. IS. AMAZING. And it really does contribute to the theme that the people that Hollywood or society tells you to trust might not be the ones you really should.
FOW: When Ryan is confronted by Cassie he asks “So you’ve never done anything you regret?” But the thing is, he didn’t regret it, or seemingly even remember it, until he was confronted with it!
JotS: Yeah. That’s the thing. To Nina, it was her life being ruined. To Ryan, it wasn’t even worth remembering. What the hell else has he done that watching a girl get raped at a frat house wasn’t even memorable?
JotS: Then again, maybe it’s a statement on how the rapists get to move on. They get to forget. The victims don’t.
FOW: Everyone gets to forget except the people who can’t. When you do get to Alfred Molina’s lawyer who does actually feel bad about his part in it, Cassie doesn’t continue to berate him for just a little bit longer after that point. She’s clearly so relieved that SOMEBODY acknowledged that they did something bad and ACTUALLY remembered and deeply regretted it. I was moved by that.
JotS: I think it helped that this was right after we had her dealing with both Alison Brie’s character, who didn’t remember that A) Nina had died and B) that she had a video of Nina’s rape on her old phone, and Connie Britton’s character, who didn’t remember the incident really. These were two women who were involved in Nina’s life at the time and they both just kind of ignored it. Then you have Alfred Molina who probably never even met Nina in person and he’s the one who is broken over what happened to her. Yeah, it’s a hell of a moment.
JotS: So, would you recommend that people see this movie despite the fact that the plot ends in kind of a bad place?
FOW: I have to say that watching a cishet man react to this movie made me immediately think “all men should see this movie, including young men.” For everyone else, it’s a reminder not to be complicit in this culture of silence and “forgetfulness.” I hope that some people who see this movie also feel heard – it’s truly maddening when everyone acts like nothing has happened and this movie echoes that situation in a way that could feel validating. And of course, the movie is extremely well done and Carey Mulligan is incredible. But it’s not the fun revenge movie you might think you’re getting from the trailer!
JotS: Or even from the opening scene, honestly, but I agree, I think everyone should see it. It’s not the movie you want, but it’s the movie you need.
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