An English playwright once wrote, “Hell has no fury like a woman scorned.” And if ever there were a movie that defined that age-old saying, it is Promising Young Woman. In the newly-released thriller starring Carey Mulligan, a med-school dropout seeks revenge against the men responsible for her best friend’s demise.
At first take, it’s hard to predict where writer-director Emerald Fennell is going with this story of rage meets requite. We’re initially introduced to Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas, played by Mulligan, as an indignant single with the propensity for destructive behavior. But along the way, her ice-cold persona appears to soften with the introduction of Bo Burnham’s character, Ryan, a new love interest. Just when you think you’re watching a love story you can root for, one accompanied by a bit of comic relief by Laverne Cox, who plays her only friend and boss Gail, you realize the real love in this dark drama isn’t between romantic partners, it’s between a woman and her now-deceased best friend.
Watching Promising Young Woman reminded me of the first time I heard Eve’s song, “Love Is Blind.” It was 1999. Before The Talk host was a daytime fixture on our television screens, she was the First Lady of Rough Ryders, recalling for her first album the story of a friend’s domestic abuse situation turned fatal. Like Eve in her song lyrics, Cassie isn’t interested in waiting on God to bring justice to her friend Nina, or any assault victim for that matter. Instead, she’s made that her job. The one-time promising med student is no longer living life for herself. Her purpose now revolves around protecting Nina’s legacy and doing her part in making sure that her best friend’s story isn’t another woman’s.
Discussions of sexual assault have become more commonplace in a Me Too era. And as a woman, it is liberating. But Fennell does not simply explore the destructive nature of rape culture in this tale, she furthers the dialogue on victimization by centering how society often deals with the men who’ve been accused of these heinous crimes. The “promising young man” trope gets reversed, forcing viewers to think about the promise of the young women that get destroyed when these crimes take place. While men’s reputations are often protected at all costs, their victims are hardly ever afforded that same luxury. Within the movie, we see that in the same way Cassie seeks to protect Nina post-mortem, there are equal efforts from her assailant’s friends to cover up his bad behavior.
The overarching theme of this movie is no doubt revenge, but it also calls into question the lengths one will go to protect their closest friendships. I met my friend of 30-plus years at the age of two. We spent our childhood together, embarked on college in Virginia just one year apart, and in our 20s we set out to shake things up in New York City (coincidentally at the same company), intent on living out our best versions of Living Single.
Best friends share one hell of a bond. Mix that with feelings of being wronged and a splash of scorn, you have a worthwhile movie you don’t want to miss.
Promising Young Woman is playing in theaters with COVID-19 restrictions enforced.
Tanya Christian is a writer and editor based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @tanyaachristian.