By Andrea Thompson
“Promising Young Woman” is one of those films that begins with a very good idea. Ideas that involve the camera lasciviously objectifying men on a dance floor the way women typically are. Granted, it’s played for laughs rather than sex appeal, since there’s nothing resembling eye candy, but you can’t have everything. Or maybe it’s an early indicator of what the movie’s real agenda is, which is condemning anyone who violates its ideas of what good behavior should be, rather than people who suffer from such expectations.
Not that it’s a bad idea to condemn violence, which is the real villain in “Promising Young Woman.” In case the marketing left any doubt, the movie addresses a very specific kind of violence that dares not speak its name here. It’s a strange choice, one that could nevertheless scream volumes about the kind of silence imposed on those who are victimized, but the equalization of responsibility “Promising Young Woman” imposes isn’t accountability, it’s another form of brutality. When such condemnation is applied to everyone with no consideration of the more complex power dynamics at play, it tends to backfire. More than that, those who have privilege to spare but are nevertheless deprived of the clout granted to others tend to suffer more, and the viciousness that spawns such violence in the first place can even be reinforced.
The silver lining is that Carey Mulligan (or the rest of the equally astounding cast, which includes Alison Brie and Bo Burnham) is in no way to blame. Her performance as Cassandra, a woman bent on punishing men who prey on women at their most vulnerable, is incredible, believably conveying not only her false but her real vulnerability, as well as her hostility, determination, doubt, and the deep reservoir of pain she’s accumulated by a culture that would rather shame her than heal her. In other words? Rape culture.
But everything “Promising Young Woman” is trying to do has been done better. Movies have been exposing the Nice Guy for what he truly is for years now, and we also never get to know the catalyst for the movie, Cassie’s friend, other than brief conversations and even briefer flashbacks. She remains defined by the worst thing that happened to her, which also broke her. The most telling thing by far though, is the horror the movie DOES choose to show, which condemns Cassie in order to punish a man. A nice change of pace would’ve been for “Promising Young Woman” to demolish the trope of the Nice Girl, which is and probably will be still going strong despite some recent progress. Coralie Fargeat more effectively interrogated our assumptions about the female body and rape culture in 2017 with her film “Revenge.” I’ll take her brand of brutality over “Promising Young Woman” any day.