Editor’s note: This article contains minimal spoilers for Promising Young Woman.
Everyone should see Promising Young Woman, the captivating, destabilizing movie about rape, which has been nominated for five Academy Awards. The movie is riddled with flaws. It is borderline nauseating. And whether or not it wins a single Oscar on Sunday night, it’s a must-watch.
Likely you’ve already been exposed to a lifetime of content about assault against women. But Promising Young Woman is a true original—it takes the #MeToo themes that we’ve begun to bitterly tune out and remixes them, creating an unbearable, perspective-shifting din.
In some ways Promising Young Woman falls back on tired tropes: Conventionally attractive, well-off white women are the primary victims of sexual violence. (In fact, women of color are disproportionately affected by sexual violence, and women who don’t go to college are more likely to experience sexual assault than those who do.) The characters in the movie are oversimplified—they’re either pure of heart, quietly grotesque, or pure evil.
In other ways, the movie is a moral triumph.
Promising Young Woman makes a study of the way some white women dedicate their meager power to reinforcing the apparatus of male violence. It takes the “But I’m a nice guy!” guy, wraps the drawstring of his hoodie around his neck, and hangs him. It tries hard to project the message that a rapist is not a person overcome by lust, but a person wielding power. Watching Promising Young Woman makes dating men feel like an impossible task—but any headline can do that. The movie’s strength is in the way it demonstrates how our culture is structured to shelter predators.
Promising Young Woman’s deceptive artistry starts even before the movie’s opening scene. Written and directed by Emerald Fennell—a former showrunner on Killing Eve, and Camilla Parker Bowles on season three of The Crown—the movie was marketed as a girl-power revenge thriller. I would bet every red lipstick in my bathroom that most people who paid to stream PYW did so in the belief that they were going to watch rapists get their asses kicked. The trailer, and the movie itself, dangle symbols of violence—berry lips, a crimson pen, red heels, a geyser of ketchup issuing from a hotdog bun. It’s thrilling. We, the viewers, are out for blood.