Promising Young Woman
The funhouse mirror of Promising Young Woman (2020)
C.C. · August 11, 2023
6 min read
I don’t remember watching Promising Young Woman. But I remember the drive home.
I turned the car slowly out of the theater parking lot. The highway was quiet, draped in low-hanging clouds and ice. Apparently everyone else had something better to do on December 25th.
In the passenger seat, my boyfriend was something close to tears. We were discussing the movie, its unsatisfying ending, and the pattern of male violence that punctuates each act. He couldn’t stand it — not the film’s poor execution, but its central theme. Promising Young Woman had hit him over the head with something every woman instinctively knows: there’s no such thing as a good man. He kept shaking his head. I kept thinking, “water is wet.”
We had left Cassandra Thomas — a once medical school student, then cafe employee — dead in a ditch. Before her final demise, Cassie spends most of the movie extracting revenge from those she holds responsible for her best friend, Nina’s, rape and later suicide. She comes close to moving on from her fixation when she falls for Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham), until she finds out that he not only knew about Nina’s rape, but watched and laughed at it. The revelation sends her into a tailspin, eventually leading to her murder at the hands of Nina’s rapist, Al Monroe (Chris Lowell).
My boyfriend was struggling with Promising Young Woman’s greatest strength: showing the viewer how every man is complicit, (even the love interest). Who could be a good man in that world? Could anyone? Could the one next to me?
He answered that question in the year after. He grew angry with me every time I didn’t want to sleep with him. Resentful when I kept refusing. Frustrated when I finally performed without enthusiasm.
He told me he couldn’t imagine being in a relationship where he had sex less than three times a week. He told me he didn’t want me to do anything I didn’t want to do, after. He once put sex on a to-do list of tasks to accomplish before the end of the day. I was slotted above cleaning the house and below doing the dishes.
Returning to Promising Young Woman, almost two years later, I’m left with new questions. Not about whether it is possible to be a good man, but why a man would feel so enraged by a fictional world, but not the reality he was actively perpetuating? Was it an elaborate performance? Was he genuinely frustrated? How did he fool himself? And how did he fool me?
Perhaps it was a type of uncanny valley. He looked into a funhouse mirror, with all the warts and ugliness accentuated in the glass, and grew angry when he still recognized his own face.
And what a stylized, uncomfortable mirror. Promising Young Woman portrays a growing female rage like I’d never seen before, but one I’d come to intimately know after that first viewing. In one of its most powerful scenes, we see Cassie take a tire iron to a man’s truck for honking at her at a red light. Music swells as she bashes one headlight, then another, and next his front window. I could feel the vibrating metal in my hands, my teeth. I could hear it at the back of my skull.
In those moments, Cassie expresses pure fury at her powerlessness, her inability to right an obvious, painful, and personal injustice. I’ve held that feeling in my chest since my relationship ended. I’ve learned to let it pour out softly or all at once, like taking an iron to glass.
Today, I see more of myself in the titular Promising Young Woman, than I’d like. I see a character left despondent by the betrayal of someone she loved more than anyone else, someone she trusted. Mostly, I see a character who, similar to a now-dead version of myself, deserved a different ending.
In her last act, Cassie infiltrates Al Monroe’s bachelor party disguised as a stripper. She handcuffs Monroe to a bed, only for him to suffocate her when a cuff breaks in the most grueling and uncomfortable minutes of film I’ve ever stared down. She dies alone, or so we think.
A more optimistic ending is haphazardly slapped on to the film’s final moments. At Cassie’s pre-death direction, a repentant lawyer (Alfred Molina) sends new evidence to the police, who, while useless a few years ago, now are miraculously competent in dispensing justice. Monroe is arrested. Cassie is still dead. And the movie loses itself.
In its final moments, Promising Young Woman shatters the world it’s built. Its first two acts are dedicated to demonstrating how our systems fail women. Everyone is complicit in male violence — from a close friend of Nina’s who disbelieves her, to the medical school dean who dismisses her. The law is a weapon wielded by Monroe’s wealthy family to undermine Nina. The police are, initially, completely absent. Then suddenly, the institutions the film has spent hours excoriating emerge victorious. The lawyer contacts the authorities. A (female) police officer arrests Monroe. Triumphant music plays out the credits. And Promising Young Woman makes a mockery of a fictional character’s name.
But in its failure, I found my revelation. Without that winter drive, I would’ve never understood how easy it is for a man to think about himself one way and act another. I wouldn’t have a warning against losing yourself in rage. I wouldn’t have a character to personify my anger, and a metaphor with which to let it go.
Promising Young Woman taught me how to tell an honest story in its failure to write one. And it helped me recognize where I want my story to differ from Cassie’s. Her need to punish those she deems responsible consumes her because ultimately, that vengeance is self-flagellating. She didn’t protect her friend. She feels as guilty as those on her hit list. While Nina’s own mother advises her to move on, to live her own life, she can’t. She can’t forgive herself.
I think I can.
The illustration above was created by Ezra Blank, a Pittsburgh based artist.
C.C. is an anonymous contributor
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