Sunday, April 25, 2021

Why Do I Love Promising Young Woman?


When I went to see Promising Young Woman in theaters on New Year's Eve 2020, I had my expectations firmly in place: Like many others, I thought I was paying money to go see Carey Mulligan butcher the hell out of a lot of men and craft a new entry in the rape-revenge subgenre while doing so. I also had been delivered the fresh news that the ending was allegedly controversial. Something that led me to make two specific predictions for the film's finale: Either it would be revealed that there was no rape to speak of, and this was going to be revenge based on lies, or that I was going to be witnessing Mulligan giving her on-screen love interest Bo Burnham an on-camera castration. Those seemed on pare for a potentially controversial conclusion since you just know a certain crowd would use a false rape allegation or a potential Burnham dick clipping as ammo to claim the film was an attack on "all men" (RE: straight white cismen). Something in the vein of the overblown reaction to Sophia Takal's 2019 remake of Black Christmas. I thought I knew what I was getting into when I viewed it.

Instead, it ended up being nothing like what I expected: It ended up being something far more special, something that has stuck inside my mind for the last four months, and that has become one of my new favorite films.

And it all started with a look into a camera.

Promising Young Woman begins not from the viewpoint of our protagonist, but rather from that of Jerry (Adam Brody). While listening to his friends complain about their female co-worker, he notices Cassie (Mulligan) sitting by herself while seemingly inebriated. Under the belief that Cassie can't function by herself, Jerry plays white knight and gets her a ride his home, and then his bed. Just as Jerry takes Cassie's underwear off and prepares to take things further, Cassie's suddenly sober and confronts him on his behavior. But not before giving us a glance up at the camera that establishes exactly what we're in for: An exercise in the art of narrative control, via our heroine, Cassie.

Throughout the film, we learn more and more about Cassie: She works in a local coffee shop under her boss slash friend Gail (Laverne Cox), who wants Cassie to take up an offer for a better job she's recieved. She still lives with her parents (Clancy Brown & Jennifer Coolidge) whom make no secret of wanting their now thirty year-old daughter to leave the nest. She goes clubbing and barhopping at least once a week and pretends to be plastered so she can fool men into thinking they've picked up an "easy" lay, when they're actually in for one hell of a wake up call. It's unclear why Cassie lives this way at first, until we learn about her backstory after reuniting with her former college classmate Ryan (Burham): In short, Cassie's best friend Nina Fisher was sexually assaulted by one of Ryan's friends, Al Monroe (Chris Lowell). After the assault, Nina dropped out of school and Cassie followed. Eventually, Nina took her own life, something from which Cassie has never recovered.

It is the revelation of that cruical backstory that permits one to glimpse into the control Cassie has gained over the narrative: In response to her percieved failure to prevent Nina's assault, despair and eventual death, Cassie has responded by shaping her grief into a regimented recklessness and, simultaneously, a state of suspended animation. Her percieved downward spiral to basement dwelling, dead-end coffee barista with a fondness for putting herself at risk to scare men straight? It's all a display of her ability to mold her life, albeit for the negative. The amount of agency and space granted to Cassie by writer/director Emerald Fennell to struggle and not necessarily make the typical morally "correct" choices is genuinely admirable in a time when more and more consumers are demanding clear cut heroes in their media. 

The full extent of Cassie's moral grayness is shown after the reveal of her backstory with Nina: Ryan's reveal of Al's return into her orbit pushes Cassie into enacting her grand vengeance fantasy. It is the first two parts of this grand plan that show us how far she's willing to go to avenge Nina: Namely, her punishments towards the friend of Nina's who refuted her truth and slut-shamed her, Madison (Alison Brie), and the Dean of Students that dismissed Nina's claims and did nothing for her in favor of Al, Elizabeth Walker (Connie Britton). Cassie sets Madison up to get quite drunk at a lunch, and then hands her over to a conspicious man with the seeming intent of having said man sexually assault Madison (We learn later on in the film that he didn't), and Cassie confronts Walker over dismissing Nina's claims, her response to Walker's ignorance is to threaten her with claims of leaving Walker's daughter at the same room in the university where Nina was assaulted (She didn't, but goes with it long enough to really rial up the Dean).

This treatment of Nina's two female targets versus all of the men she targets before and after has provoked some backlash from some viewers. One female friend of mine who saw the movie very specifically said that she was not okay with the treatment of Madison and Walker versus the other male "victims" so to speak. I think that it's one of the valid complaints against the film, especially considering that the vengeance she enacts towards the men directly involved with this is either scrapped (in the case of Alfred Molina's former lawyer Jordan Green), or incomplete (in the case of Al Monroe himself, more on that to come). I will also freely admit I too found Cassie's punishment for Madison, as unlikable as she is, particularly horrifying on my first watch. However, one way to read this flaw to make it less glaring is that of course Cassie was able to punish these two moreso than the men she goes after. Because the way the Patriarchy is stacked, despite Madison and Walker being two cisgender white and presumably straight women, they're still more accessible for a firmer punishment than the likes of the men. They're easier targets for Cassie to dull out her vengeance towards, because the system provides easier access to them.

After the peak of Cassie's moral grayness, it's interesting to think that her next target, the male lawyer who bullied Nina into dropping her charges against Al, is let off the hook because he professes to being traumatized over his role in Nina's fate. One of the details that has intrigued me about Promising Young Woman since my original viewing is that there are exactly two redeemable male characters in the story: Repentent Jordan, and Cassie's concerned father Stanley. The fact that, of the major male cast in the film, every other man is younger men in their thirties and twenties that is portrayed as irredemable versus the redemptive portrayals of Jordan and Stanley stands out. It brings to mind discussions I've had with one of my best female friends about her belief that younger generations of men are marching more towards sexism than their older counterparts, and makes me wonder if the more positive portrayals of Jordan and Stanley were a conscious choice on Fennell's part.

The redeemability of Jordan, along with an encounter with Ryan while Cassie is out picking a third mark to scare straight, brings Cassie to question her regemented control over her life. Something that causes her to seek out Nina's mother (the iconic Molly Shannon). While Cassie and Mrs. Fisher start off talking about memories from Cassie and Nina's childhoods, Mrs. Fisher cuts to the heart of the manner: She desires for Cassie to leave the exile of arrested development she has placed herself in as part of her grief. While Cassie resists at first, telling Mrs. Fisher that she's still sorry she didn't go with Nina to the party, Mrs. Fisher pleads for Cassie to move on "for all of us."  It's refreshing to see that it's the direct influence of another woman, rather than any man in the film, that inspires Cassie to make the major decision of finally relinquishing the solitude she's put upon herself and to allow herself to try to live off the cuff for the first time in a very long time.

However, it is ultimately not meant to be as, after embracing a romance with Ryan, Cassie is presented with evidence that he is not the man she hopes he is: Cassie is presented with a video of Nina's assault courtesy of Madison, and she finds that Ryan was witness to the crime and did nothing to stop it. Cassie reliquinshed control over herself for the first time, and, in return, suffers a massive betrayal. It's heartbreaking, especially after sweet scenes like the much-buzzed about set piece where Ryan romances Cassie with a renedition of "Stars Are Blind" by Paris Hilton and the amusing dinner Cassie and Ryan have with Cassie's parents. And its damage to Cassie is done when she confronts Ryan with the tape and he only responds by refusing to take responsibility, as well as dimissing Cassie as a failure. Except it's not Cassie who's really the failure, but rather Ryan; Something that he even alludes to earlier in the film when he describes botching a kidney surgery on a cadaver and, yet, Cassie was the one who dropped out of school. Ryan is a failure whom our system allowed to fail upwards, while Cassie felt she only had down to go.

After blackmailing Ryan for Al's bachelor party's location, Cassie sets off to confront the latter man once and for all in a lock and load sequence set to the film's much buzzed about orchestral cover of Britney Spears's "Toxic". Under the disguise of bachelor party stripper, she gets the man alone and confronts him directly once she has secured him to his bed via handcuffs. Cassie procures a scalpel that she intends to use to carve Nina's name into Al's body, so that someone can finally see her name instead of his "filthy fucking name." Unfortunately, the mutiliation is aborted when Al breaks free and fights Cassie, ultimately murdering her by smothering her. Cassie's plot for vengeance appears to fizzle with her death and then her cremation by Al and his partner in crime Joe (Max Greenfield). Cassie's control of the narrative and her quest for justice for her fallen friend has literally gone up in flames. Rather than either of my predictions, it was the killing of Cassie that was the hyped up controversial conclusion to the the film. 

And controversial it was, with many decrying the film for making the decision to murder Cassie for multiple reasons, including making the film hit too close to reality or ultimately being a pointless subversion that painted Cassie as a hollow martyr. I will admit, upon my first viewing, I remember being genuinely speechless and wondering what exactly was the point of this choice. I was fully prepared to hate Fennell's creative decision, as well as the film itself...until its final scene: After an investigation into Cassie's disappearance proves fruitless, we see Al's wedding, which Ryan attends. During the reception, Ryan recieves a series of scheduled text messages from Cassie beginning with, "You didn't think this was the end, did you?" The texts reveal that she handed the video to Jordan to turn over to the police, which results in the arrest of Al for Nina's assault and Cassie's murder. Thus concluding the film on a bittersweet note, set to the tune of Juice Newton's "Angel of the Morning."

With that first reflexive text message, one can read into the film that everything, including Cassie's demise at Al's hands, was all part of her master plan. It is the payoff to the control we've seen Cassie display throughout the film: The narrative has been under her thumb this whole time and, even though she is dead and burnt, not even death can prevent her from completing her hero's quest. As writer Jordan Crucchiola wrote in her article "Love, Friendship, and Vengeance: Reimagining Romance in Promising Young Woman", "In the grand tradition of love stories across cinema and literature, Nina becomes the soulmate that Cassie would walk into oblivion for. [...] Losing the other half of her heart left a wound that couldn’t heal, and because she lives in a suspense movie, that means being willing to trade her life for the chance to drop the hammer of justice down hard." Because Nina was her soulmate (although whether it be platonic, romantic or something else is up for interpretation), Cassie claimed the film's narrative to ensure she got the justice she deserved.

And that is why I have fallen in love with Promising Young Woman: Despite its flaws (of which there are more than a few), for me, it is Cassie, herself, who makes this movie a classic. Not only does she hit a sweet spot for me with being a morally gray character, something I truly love when done right (For another great example, watch Jessica Lange's Sister Jude in American Horror Story: Asylum), but I find her a pretty relatable character. As someone who's trying to climb their way out of a downward spiral and regain control of his life, it's striking to see a character like Cassie trying to navigate her own predicaments and dealing with it in her own way with a similar approach. While I don't share all of her experiences, I still relate to the way she struggles with grief and suicidalness, as well as being stuck with her parents for perhaps too long. Seriously, that argument she has with her mother during her birthday strikes pretty damn close to home for me.

I think Cassie's character is also why I've noticed that, among my own circle, Promising Young Woman has resonated the most with queer men like me. Queer male horror fans have a tendency to gravitate towards the final girls and heroines, and those I know are no exception. They love the likes of Sarah Michelle Gellar's Buffy Summers and Helen Shivers, Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling and Sarah Paulson's Lana Winters. My own gravitation towards Mulligan as Cassie is right at home with that, and reflects perhaps a desire in queer men, or maybe just myself, to take control of our own narrative as Cassie did with hers throughout the one hundred and thirteen minutes of Promising Young Woman. There is a lot more I could talk about loving in this film, such as its pop aesthetic, the terrific performances from its entire ensemble, and its absolute banger of a soundtrack that I have alluded to multiple times. But, truthfully, it is Cassie's imperfect, challenging, vengeful, distressing, and ultimately commendable journey and the chord she has striken with me that not only places Promising Young Woman as my favorite film, horror or otherwise, of 2020, but also as a new standout amongst my favorite films.

No comments: