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Promising Young Woman

I’m not happy with the Oscars this year. Granted, 2020 was a strange year in cinema for a variety of reasons, so of course awards season would be a little janky this time.

Yes, I’m still upset with the Academy for dignifying Green Book with a Best Picture win. And yes, I hate that the class of last year gave so many nominations to freaking Joker, even when the top prize ultimately went to the well-deserved Parasite. Speaking of which, I must give the Academy all due credit for nominating so many filmmakers who identify as female and/or people of color. A significant number of this year’s contenders were centered on stories and characters that were non-white and/or non-male, and that’s to be applauded.

That being said, the lion’s share of nominations this year went to freaking Mank, and Trial of the Chicago 7 got several prime nominations as well. Goddamn Glenn Close got a nomination for Hillbilly Elegy — a godawful performance in a wretched film — making her the third actor in history to get an Oscar nod and a Razzie nod for the same role. All of these movies and performances feel like shallow, cynical ploys that were designed by algorithm for the specific purpose of courting Oscar voters. And the Oscar voters responded by falling for the same old played-out tricks. It’s pathetic, and I can’t support it. I can see that changes are clearly being made, but more will have to change before I can bring myself to pretend that the Oscars are anything more than an archaic and solipsistic institution.

Also, for all the nominated films that represent people of color, Da 5 Bloods only got a token nomination for Best Original Score. Didn’t even get a nod for Delroy Lindo’s magnificent tour de force performance. What the fuck?

So here’s Promising Young Woman, which scored a whopping five nominations this year, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Original Screenplay. Exec Producer Carey Mulligan plays a woman who enacts vigilante justice on rapists and sleazy pick-up artists, it’s the feature writing/directing debut of Emerald Fennell… and this is somehow an Oscar contender. This one might’ve had my name written on it in mile-high neon letters.

This is the story of Cassie Thomas (Mulligan). By day, she’s a med school dropout who lives with her parents (played by Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) and works a barista job she clearly hates. By night, she goes bar-hopping to feign drunkenness until some idiot takes her back to his place for some too-intoxicated-to-consent sexual misdeeds. At the point of sexual assault, Cassie reveals her sobriety and forces her would-be assailants to confront the error of their ways.

Three things immediately jump out.

One, Cassie’s would-be predators are shockingly true-to-life. It strikes a nerve to hear these douchebags try to explain that they’re really “nice guys”, justifying their actions with all sorts of flimsy and sexist excuses we’ve all sadly gotten used to hearing by now. (Blaming the victim, slut-shaming, pleading ignorance, etc.)

Two, though the filmmakers initially make heavy implications to the contrary, Cassie doesn’t actually harm or kill any of her marks. She doesn’t even steal from any of them. She simply turns their own actions and excuses against them, shows them for the misogynist assholes they really are, then leaves them to stew in their own guilt.

Three, Cassie herself is completely broken. She has no social life, she has no career, and while she’s living with her parents, they barely seem to talk much. She had a great academic career and she threw it away. She clearly hates her job, she’s perfectly qualified for a better one, and she won’t go look for another career. Hell, her 30th birthday comes up at the end of the first act and she doesn’t even know it.

It seems like Cassie only really comes alive when she springs her bar grift. What does that say about her? Furthermore, when so much of her life is dominated by a bar grift that she can’t tell anyone about (for obvious reasons), how is any kind of social or romantic life even possible?

Cassie’s broken-ness becomes even more apparent with the introduction of her old classmate (Ryan Cooper, played by Bo Burnham), a surgeon who clearly never got over his old college crush. On the one hand, it’s Bo Burnham, who strikes such a perfect balance that he might be a genuinely sweet and awkward guy or he might be another rapist waiting to happen. On the other hand — if you’ll pardon the paraphrasing — Cass has been a hammer for so long that there’s a very real risk that every guy looks like a nail to her. And again, she only really seems to come alive when she’s tricking some douchebag into seeing the error of his ways.

Regardless of whether or not Ryan turns out to be the real deal, what does it say about Cassie that she seems to assume the worst about him, and about herself? Where is Cassie going, what would it take to make her happy, and does she want anything out of life except putting herself in great physical danger to make drunken womanizers squirm with guilt?

On the other hand, there’s the matter of Cassie’s parents, and also her boss (played by Laverne Cox). It’s obvious that these are people in Cassie’s life who genuinely care for her and want what’s best for her. But as the movie continues, the characters get to be increasingly pushy. Yes, Cassie is so stubbornly miserable that maybe she needs the extra push. But then again, maybe she doesn’t want the nuclear family with the white picket fence and the 2.5 kids. At some point, we have to wonder if these mentor figures really want what’s best for Cassie, or if they’re pressuring her to be what the modern patriarchal capitalist American society expects her to be.

But again, if that’s not what she wants to be, then what the hell does she want to be?

Anyway, Ryan inadvertently gets Cassie back in touch with old times, introducing Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) back into her life. See, Al committed a grievous sexual assault against Cassie’s childhood friend, and he got off scot free for it. In fact, Al is now a massively successful doctor who just got engaged to a bikini model. Meanwhile, Nina and Cassie dropped out of school and Nina’s mental/physical condition deteriorated until she finally passed away.

Thus Cassie goes on a revenge spree against Al and everyone who’s ever stood by him since the assault. And this right here, at the end of the first act, is where things start to unravel.

Yes, it’s fiendishly clever to watch Cass twist the enablers’ own excuses against them. But at the same time, she resorts to some truly fucked-up measures. I won’t dare spoil exactly what she does, but it’s terrifying to watch her slide further and further into actions that are genuinely harmful and criminal. Thus, as with any decent revenge story, we have to ask at what point Cass’ punishments are worse than the alleged crimes. And at what point her actions will come back to bite her.

And again, there’s the ongoing question of what — if anything — she is without this grief or the revenge mission to define her. Yes, it might be better for her own sake to move on, but she’d have to find a way to live with herself, knowing that her surrogate sister is dead while the man who destroyed her is living a happy and successful life.

But then the climax comes, and this is where things fly off the rails.

It bears repeating that as a revenge thriller, and also as a movie that deals with allegations of sexual assault, this is naturally a movie with a highly complex morality. But with the last fifteen minutes of the film, I completely lost the thematic thread. It’d be one thing if this movie was going to end in a cathartic way, on a hopeful note that shows the system can be overcome and justice can be served. It’d be another thing if Cass failed, showing that the patriarchy will always protect rich white men from any and all consequences of their actions, and no woman is stronger than the system.

Obviously, both options were untenable. So instead, the film tries to thread the needle in such a way that it attempts to accomplish both. I suppose an argument could be made that it succeeds in this regard, and the comeuppance is quite satisfying in a visceral gut-level way. But personally, I feel that the contradicting approaches undercut each other, mudding any kind of closing statement about sexual assault, believing the victim, toxic male privilege, and so on.

Perhaps more importantly, there’s the matter of Cass herself. There’s still the question of who or what she could possibly be without her obsession for revenge. When she’s completed her mission, when she’s moved on from the guilt, what could she be willing or able to do next? Without her pain, without her anger, what is she?

So much of this movie is dedicated to exploring the question of who Cass is, what she wants, and what she could potentially be. And the ending renders all of those questions, all of that screentime, completely moot. It’s like the filmmakers threw up their hands and simply made all those questions a non-issue because they couldn’t be bothered to think of an answer. That’s a fucking cop-out.

Still, there’s no doubt that Carey Mulligan gave this the performance of a lifetime. In point of fact, the whole cast is rock-solid. I’m no fan of Bo Burnham, but his chemistry with Mulligan was on point. We’ve also got stellar supporting turns from Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown, Alfred Molina, Adam Brody, and Connie Britton; we’ve got some more comedic turns from Laverne Cox, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Max Greenfield… the whole cast is an embarrassment of riches and there isn’t a single dud in the cast. Then again, when the actors are playing or acting against misogynist hate sinks, I suppose that gives them a lot of license to go as broad as possible.

I don’t know what to tell you, folks — Promising Young Woman had me, and then it lost me. It’s disappointing, because I respect the hell out of a film that goes this hard and this bold on such a difficult and necessary subject. The filmmakers perfectly strike a finely honed darkly comical balance, the cast is rock-solid from top to bottom, and I absolutely love how devilishly twisted and intricate the plot is.

Alas, I worry that with those last fifteen minutes, the filmmakers might’ve gotten a bit too clever for their own good. I just don’t get what the filmmakers were going for with that ending, and I don’t think it serves as a worthy payoff to what came before. Then again, it’s perfectly obvious that the film was made to be inflammatory, so it’s natural that not everyone will be on board with it. Still, it’s absolutely a film that everyone should see at least once, if only to form an opinion on it.

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