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The boldness of ‘Promising Young Woman’ and what it says about us

One of the boldest films in years.

Promising Young Woman is one of the boldest movies to come out of Hollywood in years. Not just because it tackles sexual assault, but in the ways that it is willing to do it. The film is much more than a rape revenge thriller for the #MeToo era. It is a sobering look at the psychological and emotional havoc it can bring to someone’s life. 

What makes the film work so well is its willingness to take on several different issues head on. One of the constant struggles Casandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan) must face as she tries to avenge her friend Nina is how other women do not wish to acknowledge the rape. The idea of “she deserved it” is not just perpetuated by the men of Promising Young Woman. Alison Brie’s character Madison McPhee initially refuses to discuss what has happened before quickly dismissing the incident as “girls being girls” in college. 

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One of the more powerful scenes in Promising Young Woman involves a confrontation between Cassie and Dean Elizabeth Walker (Connie Britton). While there are hints of distrust, what the interaction highlights are the disparities in class, power, and image. This moment is seamlessly worked into the film’s narrative and easily could have been heavy handed or inept. Instead, it is tension filled and adds depth to the story.

The male characters of the movie are not just treated as your standard creeps. This is seen most with Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham). There is an innocence to the character that is effectively disarming. Ryan is one of the best written characters in years as while the twist in Promising Young Woman may not catch everyone off guard, it will resonate emotionally with everyone. This is also one the most terrifying and sad moments. There is instantly a sense that no one can be trusted.

One of the recurring themes in Promising Young Woman is how men will take advantage of drunk women. Each time, the men react differently when seeing a woman who has had too much to drink. Some will act as the knight in shining armor where others will see it as an opportunity to talk themselves up. The goal is always the same; get the woman even more drunk.

When the men find out Cassie is not really drunk, the reactions are very telling. All of them are the same. Cassie is crazy and she is the one who did something wrong. The message here is clear. By becoming drunk, Cassie has agreed she has consented to do anything. This is not the first time the idea has been visited in cinema.

The boldness of 'Promising Young Woman' and what it says about us

Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham star in a scene from the movie “Promising Young Woman.” (CNS photo/Merie Weismiller Wallace, Focus Features)

What makes Promising Young Woman so frightening is the realism and paranoia during these scenes. In other movies, Cassie’s revelation would lead to the men becoming cartoonishly angry. The script wants to spell out just how bad these people are. Here, there is almost a naivety to their evil. What they are doing is wrong, but many find it acceptable which leads to the question, is it really wrong? The men are not so much mad as they are confused.

Everything comes together to tell one story about a women dealing with the sexual assault of a friend. No idea is independent of another as the story smoothly flows from one topic to the next. The characters and concepts are familiar – perhaps too familiar – which makes the Promising Young Woman that much more brave and important.

Promising Young Woman comes to Blu-Ray, DVD, and on demand on March 16

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