Major spoilers for Promising Young Woman below.
As satisfying as it is to watch a woman flip the script on sleazy guys at the bar and confront the people who enabled her friend’s rape, Promising Young Woman is more profoundly a devastating reflection of a woman consumed with grief.
No scene in writer-director Emerald Fennell’s audacious debut feature captures this better than when Cassie (Carey Mulligan) sits down with her friend Nina’s mom, Mrs. Fischer (Molly Shannon), roughly seven years after Nina’s suicide. It’s about midway through the movie, after Cassie intimidates the lawyer (Alfred Molina) who, as she puts it, “threatened and bullied” Nina to drop the case against her rapist, to atone. It also follows a scene in which Cassie browbeats the dean (Connie Britton) who gave Nina’s rapist “the benefit of the doubt” into admitting it was wrong.
At this point, Cassie’s mission to dismantle the culture of toxic masculinity that led to her friend’s death seems, on some level, fulfilled. Yet she asks Mrs. Fischer for the name of one more person—a boy who pestered Nina at her 16th birthday party—so she can indict him as well. Compounded by the regret she feels for not being there when Nina was raped, Cassie’s emotional fatigue is as palpable as her inability to cope with her loss. The only thing keeping her somewhat stable is her anger.
“I’m just trying to fix it,” she tells Mrs. Fischer. “I’m so sorry I didn’t go with her,” she adds, swiping away a tear.
Mrs. Fischer has something else in mind. “Move on, please,” she begs. “For all of us.”
But Cassie can’t. Once a student on the fast track to becoming a doctor, she’s now a shell of the person she once was—a college dropout working as a coffee shop barista, spending her days obsessing over how she failed her friend and attempting some form of amends. And she won’t suppress her despair any longer.
“Oftentimes, somebody who’s experiencing survivor’s remorse starts punishing themselves, engaging in self-defeating behaviors because they would do anything to have that friend or loved one back,” explains Manya Wakefield, a recovery coach and founder of Narcissistic Abuse Rehab whose own friend was raped in 2019. “It can go so far as you yourself experiencing trauma symptoms or PTSD.”
This crystallizes not only the severity of Cassie’s pain, but also why she puts herself in high-risk situations to try to “fix” what happened to Nina—or, perhaps more accurately, to alleviate her own despair. When we meet her, it’s one of many nights she spends alone at a club, pretending to be drunk in order to lure a man eager to take advantage of her back to his apartment. There, she surprises him with a worthy reprimand, and though she has full control over the situation, it’s still incredibly dangerous to go to a strange man’s house—no matter how sober she actually is. As Wakefield puts it, survivors can sometimes abandon all sense of peril because it’s about “losing fear, because the worst thing has already happened.”
That’s evident in Cassie’s final attempt to assuage her guilt: coercing Nina’s rapist Al (Chris Lowell) to admit his crime by infiltrating his bachelor party dressed as a naughty nurse. She’s the only woman in a house full of horny men, including at least one violent predator, and as meticulous as her plan is, she meets her fate in this endeavor. That she’s cognizant this could happen—and, in fact, accepts it—seems crushingly certain in the film’s last moments. But Cassie is much less concerned with her own well-being, including processing her grief, than she is plagued by her commitment to bringing the perpetrators to justice.
Wakefield says it’s common for women in Cassie’s position, who grow up thinking both good and bad people will get their due, to be completely rattled when that doesn’t happen. “A lot of us embrace what’s called just-world theory: If you do good, good will come back to you,” she says. “If you do bad, you’ll receive the same in equal measure. But it doesn’t always work that way. That realization can shake the foundations of how someone sees the world.”
The betrayal Cassie feels from the world around her is why she doesn’t try to make any other friends after Nina and why she virtually alienates herself from social situations and relationships. Even after reluctantly opening herself up to a new boyfriend (Bo Burnham), she learns that he, too, is another product of a complicit society—someone who stood by and eagerly watched as Nina was raped.
So, by the time Cassie faces Al, she’s already on the edge, utterly destroyed by the false contract she signed with a society that continues to turn its back on women like her friend. She barrels into the bachelor party with reckless abandon, and unlike equally feminist films such as Kill Bill and Gone Girl, Promising Young Woman’s protagonist doesn’t have revenge on her mind. She’s only desperate for Al to repent.
This is the focus of many survivors, especially those who struggle to forgive themselves for their perceived responsibility, Wakefield explains. Cassie needs Al to acknowledge his crime so she can try to move forward in her own life. “I think she would’ve felt different if she could’ve seen some measure of justice,” Wakefield says. “I think that’s why she [confronts] the systemic failures with the dean, the lawyer. All she wants is to see her friend’s humanity recognized.”
But Promising Young Woman is squarely set within our bleak reality where too few women receive that justice, and Cassie is painfully aware of this as the film ends. Though her elaborate plan ultimately forces Al to reckon with his actions, Cassie is no longer around to witness it. It’s a tremendous loss in a film already filled with it.
Wakefield sums it up best: “There’s a saying in Africa [that] goes like this: ‘The child who’s rejected will come back and burn the village down.’” Sadly, for Cassie, it’s with herself inside it.
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