Some hurts never leave you. And some leave all too soon.
Cassandra knows both, and all too well. She’s felt the former. Those that feel and forget the latter? She makes them pay.
Week after week, Cassandra dives into the night, prowling bars and nightclubs. She pretends to be drunk. Helpless. Vulnerable. Without fail, a man comes by, ostensibly to see if she’s OK. He takes her home—his home. He offers her another drink, though she’s clearly had plenty. Or drugs. Or he simply waits for her to pass out.
The night is full of predators, it seems, willing to prey upon the unwary. These men don’t know that tonight, they are the prey.
This is her mission, no other. Years ago, she had other plans, other dreams. She and her best friend, Nina, were in medical school together. Nina was at the top of the class, Cassie not far behind. Their whole lives were in front of them.
And then that night happened. And that was that. One horrific act, but two lives lost. And the others? Those who did it? Those who watched? Those who ignored the accusations or undermined the allegations? They went on, as if nothing happened. They didn’t even remember Nina’s name.
Cassie never finished medical school. Now 30, she lives with her parents and works at a coffee shop. Her secret life—revenge on strangers—keeps her heart beating, her body moving. For Cassie, there is nothing else.
But then, a stranger comes in for coffee. And, she realizes, he’s not so strange. Ryan’s his name, an old friend from medical school. He’s smitten with Cassie. She thinks he’s kind of cute, too. And slowly, gently, Ryan works his way through Cassie’s exoskeleton, rekindling the person inside. Maybe she can find a life beyond making men pay, making predators prey. Maybe she can, finally, move on.
But when he drops a name—Alexander Monroe—another switch flips in Cassie. And even as she sees a different life beckon, she begins to hatch another plan, too.
They forgot Nina’s name. But Cassie will make them remember. She’ll make sure they never forget again. Because she never forgot his name.
Promising Young Woman is, at its core, a revenge thriller, and that genre inherently has its problems. But at the heart of every revenge fantasy lies one important gem: the desire for justice.
Cassie wants justice. She wants people to pay for the wrong they’ve done. That might mean punishing men who’d take advantage of a drunk young woman—sometimes by simply frightening them, sometimes by means more extreme. It might mean forcing those who colluded (passively or actively) in Nina’s fall to see things from Nina’s and Cassie’s point of view—no matter how painful that view might be.
Cassie’s methods are indeed extreme, and they hurt Cassie nearly as much as her quarry (something that the movie points out, to its credit). But she also exacts a Sisyphean form of justice. The pain she inflicts is designed (at least most of the time) be instructive pain. It’s intended to make people think about what they’ve done (and, in some cases, make sure they don’t do it again).
She’s capable of mercy, too. At one juncture, she confronts a man whom she believes did Nina wrong. “It’s your day of reckoning,” she tells him. But to her surprise, he opens his door to her.
“I’ve been waiting,” he says.
Once she’s inside, the man says that he remembers Nina. He remembers the indirect role he played in her tragedy. And he’s overwhelmed by grief. “I’ll never forgive myself,” he says. “I’ll never forgive myself for any of this.”
Cassie’s stunned and, after a minute or two, simply says, “I forgive you,” and gives him a hug before walking out the door again.
A wedding takes place with a New Age officiant.
Cassie seeks out creeps. And man, do they act creepy. One man takes an already (seemingly) drunk Cassie home, serves her another cocktail and aggressively tries to take advantage of her when she’s passed out. We don’t see everything that’s happening, but it’s very clear what’s going on.
Another man begins a sexual act with Cassie as well. When she reveals that she’s not drunk or stoned at all, she confronts the guy—but lets him off with a warning. “At least you didn’t try to have sex with me while I was passed out. … That was sweet.”
Cassie dresses up as a nurse stripper at one juncture, handcuffing her quarry to a bed. In one mostly unseen encounter, she dons pigtails, and the man who picks her up asks how old she is, not caring about the answer. “Old enough, right?” he says with a laugh. Other men make obscene comments or haul her off as if she was a bit of property.
Cassie’s fledgling relationship with Ryan is far more traditional and (by comparison) wholesome. Cassie insists they take the relationship slow, and so he does. They eventually do kiss (often), and after a while we see them in bed together, though both of them are clothed. The movie suggests that, perhaps, Ryan might save Cassie from her own unyielding obsession with revenge.
But while we don’t see them engaged in anything untoward, we hear plenty of raunchy talk from the couple and others. For instance, Cassie’s employer tells the couple that they’re free to have sex on the coffee shop’s counter, but to please clean it up with bleach after. Ryan tells several ribald stories involving male and female body parts (and, in one case, a skeleton hand shoved up someone’s privates). He jokes that he accidentally sent a love poem to an oil rig worker who was disturbingly “into it.” We hear other jokes and conversations about various kinds of sex and, at one juncture, venereal disease.
An old video (which audiences don’t see) depicts an act of nonconsensual sex at a party. Guys make really ribald, demeaning comments and encourage a man, on the eve of his wedding, to go upstairs and have sex with a stripper. We hear about a high school girl being manipulated into visiting a bunch of possibly drunk medical students; the mother is terrified that the men will do something terrible to the girl. We learn that the name of the girl’s favorite boy band is “Wet Dream.” A married woman gets drunk and (we hear) wakes up in a hotel room with a strange man.
Cassie apparently injures some of her victims. We see her walking down the street after one encounter with blood on her arm and leg, and she attempts to cut someone’s chest. After she completes a vengeful conquest, she marks it in a journal she hides: Black marks for those she leaves alone, red (presumably) for the ones she hurts.
She doesn’t seem to kill anyone, though. Cassie tells one terrified man that she’s not the only one doing this sort of thing, and she’s from far the worst: A woman downtown, Cassie warns, carries a pair of scissors with her.
Cassie smashes the taillights and windshield of a man’s truck. Jokes are made involving euthanasia and kids with cancer. Cassie’s employer asks Ryan (who’s a pediatric surgeon) if he kills kids.
[Spoiler warning] Nina died after she was sexually assaulted at a party. And while the movie never explicitly says how she died, we’re led to assume that it was by her own hand. Someone dies by being smothered by a pillow. Viewers see parts of the corpse.
About 60 f-words, a dozen s-words and two uses of the c-word. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch” and “p-ssy.” God’s name is misused nearly 20 times, and Jesus’ name is abused about five.
As mentioned, Cassie often pretends to be drunk or stoned. One man gives her another cocktail before assaulting her (which she says tastes terrible), while another—after snorting a line of cocaine—offers her the same. (After sticking a straw up her nose but failing to get her to inhale, he rubs some of the powder in her mouth.)
At a lunch, Cassie secretly fills her own champagne glass with ginger ale while filling her guest’s with champagne. (The guest drinks a great deal of wine, too, with Cassie’s encouragement. She gleefully says that she hasn’t been “day drunk” for a long time.) We hear how medical students were often drunk or otherwise inebriated, with one claiming that it was just “one blackout after another.” A bottle of liquor contains an extra drug that successfully knocks several people out. We see people drink wine, beer, whiskey and other alcoholic beverages.
We hear a great deal about whether whatever happened to Nina was her fault, both because of her reputation and because, the night it happened, she was apparently very drunk.
Cassie sometimes pretends that she’s going to vomit. A man retches. Cassie and Nina’s mom reminisce about the time Nina threw up during a birthday party on the slide.
Cassie spits in someone’s coffee that she just served them. The customer intentionally drinks it.
Of all the movies that address the #MeToo movement, Promising Young Woman may be its gleefully wicked crown jewel. With a savage sense of humor, the film (directed by Killing Eve creator Emerald Fennell) makes its points and draws its blood. And in its folds, you can see fingers of accusations pointed at every man who’s ever taken advantage of a woman … as well as every other man who ever allowed it to happen.
Throughout the film, we hear the accused men offer many an excuse. We were just kids! It was so long ago! I’m different! I’m a good guy! And sometimes, we find some truth to those excuses. Not every bad guy is an actively bad guy.
And yet, Promising Young Woman reminds us of one salient and sometimes inconvenient fact: Sure, maybe what happened occurred a long time ago. Maybe these guys are better people now. But when confronted with the truth, most deny. Evade. Lie to free themselves from blame and escape punishment. Few are contrite or remorseful. Few are repentant.
And in this small way, the film perhaps unintentionally strikes a Christian chord: Confession and repentance are an inescapable part of the process of forgiveness and restoration. Christ tells us to ask for forgiveness, not to embrace soul-numbing forgetfulness that never seriously grapples with our sin and its consequences.
Alas, Promising Young Woman contains plenty that I’d like to forget.
The movie’s not wildly salacious: There’s no nudity here, no gore. But when you craft a revenge fantasy based on sexual assault, you’re inherently diving into some dark and deeply problematic areas.
Many of the men here do reprehensible things, and we watch them do it. And, the film suggests, there really aren’t many good men around, either. Cassie’s calculated retribution may invite an illicit thrill among some viewers; but that motivation doesn’t make her vengeance any more legal or less cruel.
Promising Young Woman is tragedy masked as comedy, a movie where an itch for justice is scratched by a twisted knife.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.