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  • Kelly Bishop

"It's okay, you're safe" - Promising Young Woman Review

TW - Sexual assault, suicide, and murder

In one of Promising Young Woman's early scenes, we see Cassie (Carey Mulligan) walking down the street after leaving the home of a sexual predator with blood dripping down her leg. It's only as the camera pans up that we discover it's ketchup from a hotdog, not blood. If you're coming to Promising Young Woman anticipating a rape-revenge story akin to Hard Candy and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it's safe to say you are likely going to leave disappointed. Wrapped in a saccharinely sweet shell, Promising Young Woman portrays both fantasy and reality in one fell swoop.

Cassie is a 30-year-old med school dropout, who works her days at the coffee shop and her nights acting drunk to lure in predatory men. Once they've taken her home, and mistaken her inebriation for consent, Cassie confronts them, stone-cold and sober, in a fantasy many assault survivors can only dream of. This is all in response to the death of Cassie's best friend Nina, who was sexually assaulted in med-school. As the film progresses not only does Cassie confront the average bargoer, but the people from her past who either assaulted Nina or refused to believe her.

For a first-time director, Emerald Fennell has done an outstanding job. She's found a way to highlight the righteous rage of a woman without resorting to the traditional violent response of men. It's when Cassie tries to take this violent route to express her anger that things turn sour. In an interview with Harper's Bazaar about the film's ending, Fennell explained: "It was important to me that if the audience is expecting, or wanting violence, then this is what happens when women try to be violent. Because it goes wrong."

It's a controversial ending, to say the least. Cassie's character resorts to relying on the police to arrest a wealthy, just married, doctor. While on one hand, it feels like a victory, like justice will prevail. However, we know this to be very unlikely. According to RAINN, the United States' largest anti-sexual violence organization, out of every 1000 sexual assaults, 995 will go free, and of the 230 reported to the police, an average of 4.6 rapists will be incarcerated. While Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) isn't necessarily arrested for this crime alone, he is also a seemingly wealthy white male in the state of Ohio, with good standing in society. It is unlikely that he will be charged in the way that Cassie anticipates when she formulates her plan.

Even if these final scenes sour the taste of the rest of the film, the casting has to be praised. Carey Mulligan plays Cassie as if she's hanging on by the last thread. She can find no respite in her life until she hears someone admit what happened to her friend. She struggles with her emotions, particularly in regard to men, and draws up this wall to prevent herself from being hurt.

However, it's the casting of the men throughout this film that needs rewarding. Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, and Bo Burnham are phenomenal casting choices. Adam Brody was best known for playing the funny, dorky, and sometimes socially awkward Seth Cohen in the OC. Max Greenfield became everyone's favourite loveable douche-bag in New Girl. Bo Burnham, rather than having played someone in a television programme, is a musical comedian and screenwriter.

In the same interview with Harper's Bazaar, Fennell spoke about these casting choices and said: "These guys are not the obvious creeps and villains. They’re the kind of people who think they’re good, and the audience comes in with an expectation that they’re good and trustworthy... these are people that we like."

It circles back to the idea of fantasy versus 'reality in Promising Young Woman. It's fantastic to see someone call out every man who makes an unwanted sexual advance. Not every man, however, will recoil in horror at their own actions. On several occasions, as Cassie stands her ground, she is called crazy, a bitch and ultimately faces violence from men. This response can even come from the people we believe to be incredibly trustworthy at first glance.

The same can be said for the character played by Alison Brie. Her characters in the past have usually been a beacon of optimism and strength. However, like Madison, we see the initial delight at being a new mother to twins crushed under the weight of an assumed regret. Whether you believe it was a good decision on Cassie's part to subject an old friend to such torment is neither here nor there, but what this plotline shows is, once again, those people we would have considered to be friends may not always have our backs in our hours of need. Those may be the first people to laugh.

Overall, without getting into spoilers, Promising Young Woman is a sharp take on the rape-revenge sub-genre, that is definitely polarising in its ending. The final act is a stark look at the very real concerns facing women, particularly those in the sex work industry while wrapping the story up neatly in a utopian finale. It's sharp and dark but also manages to have moments of lightness, set to a wonderful soundtrack featuring Paris Hilton.

Promising Young Woman is now available to stream on NowTV


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