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Like many single women in their early thirties, Cassie spends Saturday nights getting dressed up and going out to clubs. She puts her make-up on in front of the mirror and picks out something to wear. But Cassie prefers a self-smudged lip, pre-ruined eyeshadow and, instead of drinking too much, she pretends to be drunk. She then perfects a half-cut Keyser Soze limp and slumps into a chair at a local bar to wait, like a flower mantis, for her prey – a “nice guy” who just wants to see if she is OK and maybe offer her a ride home.
Jerry is one such suitor. A nice-guy knight in shining Uber. In a cameo from Adam Brody that couldn’t be further from his days playing Seth Cohen in The OC (the ultimate nice guy), Jerry offers Cassie a lift home and – “My apartment is a few blocks from here. Would you wanna have a drink before hitting the hay?”
Before we know it, he’s pouncing on her almost unconscious body and slowly pulling down her knickers, all the while ignoring her slurred questions of “what are you doing?” Instead, whispering “it’s OK, you’re safe” as he undoes her shirt and kisses her chest – echoing the haunting rape scene in Harmony Korine’s Kids : “Shh. It's me, Casper. Don't worry.” Suddenly, Cassie opens her eyes, breaks the fourth wall and gives us a knowing smile. She sits bolt upright, sober as a judge after all and with new, forceful emphasis and complete clarity, repeats: “Hey, I said what are you doing?”
For each of her missions, Cassie steps into a different masquerade. Some nights she’s an office worker who had one too many at after-work drinks, other nights she’s a party girl with a high pony and bicep bangles. Men sniff out her vulnerability and are ensnared, ending the night as a notch on a lengthy tally of conquests in Cassie’s notebook. It’s a seriously dangerous game she’s playing, and one that exists in pure fantasy land. It would seem that every one of these men accepts their morality lesson with relative humility.
And that’s the rub. Because though Promising Young Woman is pitched as a #MeToo revenge movie, with a trailer teasing at a kitsch Harley Quinn-style slasher, it stops short of anything like that.
We could dismiss this as a mis-selling or even a little disappointing – and at times it does fall flat. The film’s tone is irregular, one-minute attempting black humour, the next pivoting to full romcom and then becoming an after-school special. The only consistently good thing about this film is Carey Mulligan’s acting. But while it disappoints in some regards, Promising Young Woman has undoubted value that shouldn’t be dismissed. With a woman at the reins, it doesn’t languish in the assault that lends the story its purpose, as many male-directed sexual assault dramas do.
Much of the didacticism is so on the nose it jars, but at least it is there. “They put themselves in danger, girls like that,” one man says of “drunk” Cassie. “If she’s not careful, someone’s going to take advantage,” says another. “Look how easy it was. I guess you just had to think about it in the right way. I guess it feels different when it’s someone you love.”
Cassie might not break out the sledgehammers, but Fennell certainly does. To a young audience, one not yet jaded with the how-short-was-your-skirt narrative and we-were-just-having-fun excuses, all this could be eye opening. And perhaps, especially, to young men and boys.
Because we’ve learnt in many of the high-profile sexual assault cases of recent years that perpetrators of sexual assault and rape will attempt to manipulate any nuance in their favour. As a result, it can often feel like the only thing enough to secure a conviction is photographic evidence – as Cassie reminds the university dean who dismissed the case, when she says: “You felt there wasn’t sufficient evidence. You said it was too much of a 'he said, she said’ situation”. As if victim testimony, bruising and DNA evidence isn’t enough.
There’s nothing subtle about sexual assault, and yet perpetrators continually peddle the line that their victims were not giving clear enough signals that they weren’t consenting.
We know this approach has worked. Campaign group We Can’t Consent to This, which fought for the abolishment of the Rough Sex Defence, has identified 60 women in the UK who have been killed by men claiming a sex game gone wrong. Meanwhile, in England and Wales, the rape conviction rate is at the lowest on record in both countries.
Promising Young Woman brings to mind every high-profile sexual assault case of recent years, with notes of the Brock Turner, Harvey Weinstein and Steubenville High School cases. It addresses the cliched tropes of people only capable of being concerned about sexual assault if they can relate it to themselves via the “what if it was your sister, your mother, your girlfriend” trope, the “oh but we were just kids when we did it” excuse, or all-time favourite: “you got yourself into trouble”. And it doesn’t hold back on those who allow cultures of silence to thrive, attacking the bystanding women as much as it attacks the men.
MeToo has been a strong theme in Hollywood since 2017, as the industry continues to reckon with itself in an increasingly meta manner. Films and TV shows like Bombshell and The Morning Show – both excellent – revisited now infamous incidents, and The Assistant explored the toxic culture of tolerance that allowed Weinstein and those around him to continue to abuse for some time.
But the former are specific cases and the latter, while nuanced and quietly powerful, felt too subtle to be accessible, ultimately circulating the echo chamber.
Fennell’s smack-you-in-the-face approach has value. At one point, a rapist, in a last-ditch attempt to exonerate himself, says: “It’s every guy’s worst nightmare, being accused like that,” to which Cassie dryly responds, “can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?” It brings to mind the acerbic Margaret Atwood quote: “Men are scared that women will laugh at them. Women are scared that men will kill them.”
A year after the start of Harvey Weinstein’s trial, Promising Young Woman prompts us to ask – how much has really changed? What may have felt like an industry-specific incident in Hollywood is actually the universal female experience. It’s as much an attack on complacency as it is on abusers, and the ending hits this home in a final sucker-punch. It’s as subtle as a sledgehammer to the head but perhaps we need that. Show it to every teenager you know.
‘Promising Young Woman’ was released in the UK on 16 April on Sky Go.