How far would you go to avenge the death of your best friend following the trauma of gang rape? Screenwriter and director Emerald Fennell poses this question on the head of a pin in her debut film “Promising Young Woman.” Women viewers are meant to self-interrogate; men, to squirm in their seats. Trigger warning: There are no gender conflations. Women are women and men are men, except for the coffee bar owner where Cassie (Carey Mulligan) works: The boss (Laverne Cox) is trans. HBO’s PR team has tagged the film as a comedy. Whether HBO believes it’s a comedy trapped in the body of a tragedy or vice versa is unclear. There are a few jokes, but apart from the double entendre title, Promising Young Woman is anything but funny.
Detailing the plot would troll out too many spoilers. Here are the bare bones: A former medical student now serves coffee for a living when she’s not too busy trading cynical barbs with her boss or enduring her parents’ kitchen table handwringing. She’s living in their house, and her late nights signal that she’s not getting on with her life in the way they’d like to see her progress. Carrie has a mission that explains the seeming foot-dragging. She feigns drunkenness in bars to attract the attention of nice enough men who see no harm in taking advantage of intoxicated women’s helplessness under the guise of squiring them home. In a small notebook, she keeps a tally, complete with hash marks, of every succeeding rape attempt that she foils.
When Cassie runs into a former acquaintance from medical school, she arranges a ladies-who-lunch—style date to learn the whereabouts of the male student, now doctor, who initiated the gang rape of her now-dead friend Nina. Armed with his new coordinates, she expands her repertoire, using even more imaginative tropes to expose the complicity of the university where the rape took place, and the not-so-innocent bystanders who continued their studies and careers unsullied by their perfidious roles on “the night of.” Each such interviewee claims to have miraculously wiped from memory not only the gang rape but their paralysis in the face of it. As Cassie engineers her revenge, we see that defense of “innocent until proven guilty” and “I was just a kid then” impress her not in the least. She’s too obsessed with trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored, with some of those grapes distilled and served up as champagne, to loosen the tongue of a vital source.
An auxiliary plot revolves around the warming of Cassie’s sang-froid just enough to accommodate the longings of a former classmate. He shows up at the coffee bar, smitten, albeit patronizingly so. The best joke in the film comes when Cassie brings her beau (Bo Burnham) home to meet the parents. Over dinner, Cassie’s mother asks what he does for a living. “I’m a pediatrician,” he answers. “Oh, your parents must be proud of you!” the mother chirps. “No,” Bo avers, “They would have preferred that I’d become a DJ.”
Carey Mulligan’s Cassie is built around the spine of confidence her mission requires. She sizes up her prey with the fanatical zeal of a suicide assassin. She won’t discharge until the precise moment that she has the whites of his eyes in her crosshairs. Given the message-burdened first-time script, the actors do justice to their most predictable characters, crafted by Fennell to mirror predictable viewers’ predictably puzzled responses.
Promising Young Woman will be popular with the “cut it off” wing of the feminist movement and their cheering section, for whom revenge is enough, yet there is never enough revenge. For those who await a better day, or a reconciliation like the one favored by Nelson Mandela with South African Boers and others who supported Apartheid in its day, Carrie’s playbook will look like a well-constructed exercise in self-destruction. Regardless of how well it succeeds in placing the shoe on the other foot, so men appreciate what it feels like to be a raped woman, her controlling argument still rests on a misalliance with rapists and their enablers. Only when those on the right side of history uphold the presumption of innocence as the prerequisite for winning justice and reconcile errors in judgment by youthful offenders with their now-mature bona fide efforts to own up to their culpability, will we be able to knit together the enlightening filament of human solidarity and mutual respect that bind free men with free women.