When I first watched Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman I was slightly irritated by it, and even sort of disgusted. I am one of those problematic women who believes the Me Too movement started out as necessary and important but quickly devolved into a mass hysteria driven witch hunt. (I know, I know but bear with me even if you are already horrified). Thus, my conclusion was this movie thinks all men are rapists and all women are victims. And then I went to sleep.
Have you ever had a movie haunt you? Have you ever had one wake you up in the middle of the night? Whatever part of my brain that was rejecting the film was being challenged by the film itself. It would not let me go. I thought about it all night and then into the morning and then the next day and the next. I could not get the film’s final moments out of my head. I could not get the main character’s actions out of my head — the score, the acting, the plot twist — and then suddenly, it hit me:
I’d just encountered a powerful work of art.
Promising Young Woman, written and directed by the talented Emerald Fennell, stars the equally talented Carey Mulligan as an avenging angel of sorts. We’ve seen vendetta movies starring women, like Revenge (also written and directed by a woman, Coralie Fargeat), and characters who embody avengers, like Ripley in the Alien series, Linda Hamilton in the Terminator series. Women who fight back against abusive husbands, like this year’s The Invisible Man, Enough starring Jennifer Lopez. And of course, the great Rooney Mara in Dragon Tattoo. Watching women get revenge on men for the wrongs they’ve done can be satisfying, just as it is to watch movies involving male avengers. Most of the time we expect a degree violence from them. We expect them to pick up a gun and shoot, or else, as Lopez did, train to fight and defeat their abuser. Revenge, then, is often about equality — making the woman as strong and overpowering as a man.
There are so many revenge movies that amount to righting a wrong from the past and usually that means the avenger must not stop until their brand of justice is realized. At this point, the filmmaker must decide the fate of their avenger. And how they want audiences to interpreted their actions.
Is the revenge worth it? Or do we finally decide we’ve had enough of the violence, that the perpetrator has been punished enough? Do we secretly want to see those who inflict suffering suffer? Or does our humanity and empathy kick in and we struggle with payback.
Either the protagonist is in the right or they’re wrong. In Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, for instance, the crime keeps growing more severe as it is passed from one person to the next, like a game of telephone. Eastwood’s film is a great illustration of what can happen on the wild frontiers of social media in the wake of sexual allegations on Twitter. It reaches levels of mass panic and is distorted to the point where you could imagine an actual mob with pitchforks chasing someone, cornering them and enacting actual violence on them because that is what they deserve. But by the end of Unforgiven the protagonist has lost touch with the whole point of the original crime.
Fennell could very easily have made Promising Young Woman into a movie like that. All she would have had to do was make the film about someone who learns a lesson about going too far. But she had another choice because in a sense, in the post Me Too era, she must speak for women generally, and to a movement that has forced everyone to look at all of it. Whom are we to hold accountable? And for how long? Is forgiveness ever allowed? I think for many in the Me Too movement, the answer to that is No. Never. The victimizers can’t escape their crimes no matter who they were at the time or how they’ve changed.
While I was thinking about Promising Young Woman, or while it was forcing me to think about it, I realized that it doesn’t need to draw those conclusions. It doesn’t need to tell you what to think or what to feel. It gives you a character whose objectives are clear, even if destructive. How you come away from it will depend on what conversation it forces you to have with yourself, with your past.
Many are going to watch the film and see it as Fennell making black and white declarations about people, judging them as “good” and “bad” and thus, they will see the movie as the unreality of “generation woke.” On the other side of the spectrum, are many who genuinely believe that we do live in a world of no forgiveness for people who either do bad things or watch bad things happen and do nothing. In other words, some will hate the movie and some will love it.
I suppose in the end what I was left with was being deeply moved by the juxtaposition of highly stylized cinema and something else very sad. It was the sadness of it that stayed with me. So much of this is due to Mulligan’s performance. She’s so many things at once — smart, funny, sexy and yes, promising — so much potential her character has to make something of her life. That is clear in every choice Mulligan makes with the character, from her hair to her clothes, to the way she communicates. She has survivor’s guilt as a “promising young woman” whose own path in life took a detour when her best friend’s life was derailed. She is suffering from anger and grief and has no real outlet for those emotions except to take it out on those she believes contributed to the fate of her friend.
Mulligan isn’t often given roles that show off her versatility but here she is able to hit the complex notes to portray someone who is different things to different people. She plays a woman who understands that often sexuality is something to be turned on in a given moment, but something that can just as easily be taken away. This is a “Me Too horror movie” in that it lives in that universe completely, for better and worse.
Did it make me uncomfortable? Yes. Did I agree with everything that happened in the story? No. But as a work of art it stands out in an era where most of the films made are naturalistic in their style, almost like documentaries but Fennell’s film is like a bright pink frosted birthday cake with razor blades inside.
I am not someone who believes in eternal punishment for crimes or mistakes of the past, but I like that this movie made me think about that, extreme though it is. And forced me to have that conversation. It took me to some really strange places and I know watching it left me changed.
It is a movie for our time, to be sure, and one of the best films of the year.