It is a tale as old as time, everlasting in its commercial appeal, serving for centuries as pop-culture fodder for theatre, and more recently film and for TV. In Chi-Raq (2015), Spike Lee reimagined the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata—about a woman who decides that the only way to end the Peloponnesian war would be for all women to deny sex to all men—in the modern day Southside of Chicago, substituting urban gang violence for the warring Greek city states. In 2019’s Queen and Slim, a Black couple on their first date kill a cop who gets violent at a traffic stop, then flees the scene and state. Ultimately, they’re killed trying to escape the country; this is self-defense as revenge against racist killer cops, which ends in yet another racist killing. Revenge is a political act. It is vigilante justice.
Fennell’s film is another story about two best girl friends bonded by a sexual assault and the life-altering lack of justice. As the med school dean, played by Connie Britton, puts it: “We have to give these boys the benefit of the doubt.” The update here is that one of them is already dead by the time we show up (it is implied that Cassie’s best friend, Nina, has killed herself), and the other won’t let any of it go. The movie is about assault and vengeance, martyrdom and suicide. It is about a woman who refuses to accept the limp hand of justice, who sacrifices her own life (figuratively—she has no other hobbies or interests—and then literally) to avenge her friend’s rape, because no one else will and nothing else matters.
Cassie does, however, manage to have a little fun along the way. It is a very funny movie, most of the time. She gets into her attention-seeking nightclub character with YouTube makeup tutorials for “blowjob lips,” and smuggly tells one particularly egregious “nice guy” that his novel sounds awful as she walks out his door. And she does this all seemingly without any concern for her own wellbeing, despite knowing full well how far south things could go. The fantasy element extends itself so far as to leave Cassie unharmed by her many nights spent excoriating drunk men in their own homes, a very compromised position no matter how you get there. When she smashes the tail and headlights of a pickup truck whose driver calls her every expletive you can imagine, that guy leaves skid marks. Smashed plastic and glass glitter cover the dirt road around Cassie, who stands there stunned. This is perhaps the most literal fantasy scene of all, as we’re lulled further into feeling that maybe she really can get away with anything.
In real life, at least in my real life, none of this is possible, though all of it is tempting. I would so love to unmask the ex-boyfriend who bruised my wrist and never kissed me. I still think about sending a scorched-earth email to HR about the time a former employer got up from his lunch-table seat across from mine, leaned over my shoulder, and—in front of the rest of our office—buried his index finger deep into the cool blue frosting of my fudge brownie cupcake. And then there’s that NDA whose legitimacy I’m curious to test.
But I don’t do any of this—I don’t send the email, or the tweet, or whatever else might to do the job—because while public shaming is an attractive idea, it often has a counterproductive and self-harming effect, and whistleblowers typically are not so well-received. Look what happened to Moira Donegan, who created the Shitty Men In Media list and is now unable to escape a libel lawsuit brought against her by one such man, who claims the allegations made against him on the list were false. I’ve heard it said that holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other person gets sick and dies. I guess I don’t have the death drive. Ultimately, forbearance is less satisfying, but it may keep you safer.
By the end of act two, you start to wonder whether Promising Young Woman is a movie about a woman on the verge who is brought back to life thanks to the healing power of true love. Cassie stops her nighttime hustle and does seem much happier, singing to herself at work and in the car, after she starts dating Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former med-school classmate and current pediatric surgeon with plenty of free time, who asks her out after she spits into his coffee. (The men here are all either frightened babies or gluttons for punishment, which is just interesting.) Of course, it is not that movie.
Cassie recognizes a younger Ryan laughing along in the cellphone video recording of Nina’s rape, then blackmails him into telling her the location of the rapist’s bachelor party. The rapist’s name is Al, and he is now an anesthesiologist engaged to a bikini model. Of course he is.