Did Promising Young Woman defy your expectations? That’s what makes it so good.

**High Spoiler Alert! There are a whole lot of details about the movie in this post, including the ending. If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t read this.**

Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman opens in a second-rate club with a handful of bros complaining about a female colleague. The scene cuts quickly to a banquette and a blonde. Almost too drunk to sit up, she attracts our men’s attention quickly and they joke, basically—frankly, even—about raping her. The sole gentleman among them cuts them off, heads over for a wellness check, and then takes her home, after all, where he plies her with syrupy liqueur and gallantly helps her lie down on his bed. 

The scene gets uncomfortable fast. The blonde, Cassie Thomas, lies prone, arms spread in a Jesus Christ pose. As our bro begins to peel her panties down, she mumbles drunkenly, whatareyoudoing. But as the panties come off her feet, Cassie’s eyes open and the soundtrack drops a monster beat. 

Suddenly sober, she sits up and repeats her question, stone-cold and sharp as anything: 

What are you doing? 

As viewers, we don’t know exactly what becomes of this guy. (In the next scene, Cassie strolls home, something gooey and red dripping down her arm… but it’s only ketchup from her morning-after hotdog.) What I do know is the thought that flashed through my mind in that early scene, not five minutes into the movie: 

This is a dangerous game. What if this backfires? One of these men is going to get mad. 

I meant to see Promising Young Woman opening weekend. I made a date to watch with my daughter, but we got delayed – she was moving house, Covid ruins everything, etc. Finally, a friend texted late one night to say she’d just seen it. Um, she joked. Did you write this?

When I saw the first promo for the movie, it’s almost what I said myself. What I actually said was: goddamn I wish I wrote that. My own first novel, The Devil You Know, starts in a similar place. A 20-something protagonist struggles over the loss of her best friend, allowing her obsession with finding the perpetrator to provide her with the feeling of control she craves—until the obsession spins out of control itself.

In the novel, main character Evie Jones is a young reporter who can’t get over the murder of her childhood best friend. She cycles obsessively on the crime and her favourite suspect, finally risking her own life to try and trap him. In Promising Young Woman, Cassie Thomas is paralyzed by the suicide of her best friend, Nina, after Nina was raped at a party in full view of their med school peers. But Cassie’s obsessive cycling on the crime appears to head down a different road altogether: Promising Young Woman sets up as a revenge thriller, and Cassie targets the very predators who assault drunk women—by going out every weekend and pretending to be too drunk to walk, then surprising her would-be rapists in the moment of truth. Guess who’s sober and mad as hell?

I based Evie’s story, in part, on my own. Like Evie, my best friend was killed by a predator when we were children. Also like Evie, the murder continued to haunt me well into my twenties. My sense of my own safety was so damaged that only now do I see how paralyzed I was, how I turned away from opportunities, and how generally fucked up my relationships with men became. Later, in my thirties, my therapist broke it down for me as a kind of PTSD. Out of a classroom of school children, she said, probably most of them remember the event, and its aftermath. Maybe one or two have forgotten completely. But one or two—especially those who were close to the victim—will have reacted like you, she said. At nine years old, I sucked the trauma into my body, and there it stayed. 

I recognized myself constantly in Cassie’s paralysis and her obsession with Nina’s death. Cassie, at 30, is desperate to hang onto that obsession, which is now the only contact she has left with Nina at all; we see her survivor guilt over and over. A medical school drop-out, she wears her hair in schoolgirl braids, tied up with ribbons, and works in a coffee shop, a job that even Gail, her boss, knows is beneath her; when Cassie says she simply doesn’t want any of the trappings of adulthood, Gail sniffs, You must want something. 

And Cassie does. At first, we think what she wants is revenge. The film is billed as a revenge thriller, after all, and I know a lot of viewers come to it hoping for blood. But Cassie isn’t aiming for that; what Cassie really wants is control. She goes home with a different asshole every weekend and becomes frighteningly sober in his apartment. She’s not in it to hurt them. She’s in it to make them feel afraid. She wants to take away their control, and replace it with her own. That’s what rape is all about it, isn’t it? Power for one person, and none for the other. 

There’s risk here, and in retrospect, I think Cassie is tempting that fate all along. She deliberately puts herself in harm’s way every weekend, and then saves herself – and Nina, too, by proxy—by playing both roles at once: the drunk victim and the sober friend. The friend who, in this world, arrives just in time. 

When love-interest Ryan comes along, the movie genre-swaps, morphing into a rom-com. It’s notable that the parameters of the relationship are still framed by Cassie’s trauma. Ryan is an old schoolmate from those med school days, and every charming thing he says is tinged with the language of consent; this is what wins Cassie over to begin with. She beats back the obsession, realizing how it controls her, rather than the other way around and it’s just what we all want for her. It’s what we want for ourselves—to feel that recovery can be easy. Changing out the genre is a risk, but we are lulled here, forgetting that upending expectations actually demands much more from the viewer. There’s a cute montage set to Paris Hilton’s ‘Stars are Blind’, part of a soundtrack pattern that includes Britney Spears, another denigrated woman of the 2000’s. But wow. What a relief. 

And then, just as we think she’s heading to her happy ending, the page turns again: a video surfaces of the night Nina was raped. Finally, Cassie has the proof that Nina lacked. But the video seems to retrigger Cassie’s obsession; she doesn’t deliver the tape straight into police hands. This time it’s personal. 

The end of the movie plays to our desire for a revenge narrative. We want her to go psycho. Dressed as a Harley Quinn-inflected nurse, Cassie poses as a stripper and shows up at the rapist’s bachelor party. She takes him upstairs, cuffs him to a bed, and delivers a pitch-perfect villain’s monologue—only, in this version, she’s demanding that he admit to being the villain. Cassie describes who her friend was before the rape, who she became afterward, and most importantly, she asks him, repeatedly, to own his actions. To own up to the rape. 

Ultimately, neither Cassie nor Nina survived Nina’s assault. It’s clear that after Nina’s suicide, Cassie has never been herself again. If there’s a moment in the movie where Cassie becomes every woman (and to be honest, I think there are plenty), it’s this one: statistically, somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of women report having been sexually assaulted. Even without extrapolating—that number is surely higher, many women aren’t willing to revisit their assaults for the sake of statistics—it’s easy math. We have all seen the effect of sexual assault on the promising young women around us; we all know the threat and fear of assault. They are pervasive in our world. 

The rapist—Al— is terrified now, but he never seems to fear for his life. What scares him is the impact this woman might have on his status, his job, his impending marriage. We can recall Margaret Atwood here: Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them. When Al defends himself by saying the event had repercussions for him, too—It’s every guy’s worst nightmare, getting accused like that—Cassie responds simply: 

Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?

The plan, predictably, goes awry. 

No, I mean it: I predicted the ending in that very first scene. Remember? This is a dangerous game. What’s more, I believe every woman does. No woman watching this film doesn’t immediately think of how dangerous it would be to surprise a man the way Cassie does, repeatedly, every Saturday night. What if this backfires? One of these men is going to get mad. 

There is a fight. It’s loud and overlaid with soundtrack music and Al’s shouting— Shut up! Stop moving! But in the moment where Al holds her down and thrusts a pillow over Cassie’s face, kneeling against it to hold it in place, the sound cuts. 

There are six full, excruciating seconds of silence.

When the silence breaks, we come back to the sound of Cassie’s long, muffled scream. A faceless howl from beneath the pillow. This segment, maybe ten seconds total, frames the film: That howl is all of us. It’s our grief, our pain, and our fear and it rises out of nothing to become the one thing that we can all hear. 

From there on in, we hear every sound Cassie makes as Al, his knee holding the pillow in place, suffocates her until she is dead. It’s a long scene, and at the end of it, when she has stopped moving, Al’s face changes—his fear given way to anger, he bears down, kicking her in the face three times. By that time, of course, she is no longer a threat. 

We can’t quite believe it, can we? Watching with my daughter, lockdown-style, in our two houses, our phones lit up. This better be a zombie movie, she texted me, panicked. But it bears remembering that Fennell was the showrunner on season two of Killing Eve. So if Cassie doesn’t deliver the psycho killer vibe viewers are expecting, it’s not because Fennell doesn’t know how to write a woman that way. It’s that she’s deliberately chosen not to. It would be easier if she had delivered to our expectations. Wouldn’t it be great if trauma recovery was really like that? An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, violence for violence. Wow. What a relief. 

Despite our hopes, in the next few scenes, Fennell goes out of her way to make it clear that there is no twist coming: Cassie is dead. Morning comes, and with it the buzzing of flies, the dirt on Cassie’s white-stockinged feet, and her stillness—her pose on the bed recalling that earliest scene, a Jesus Christ pose, arms wide open, the pillow still over her face. Because we all knew, from that very first scene, just what kind of risk Cassie was taking by challenging men to face their own actions. She predicted this outcome, too; she planned for it, every weekend at the club. 

There is no twist ending. It’s not a thriller. Promising Young Woman is an acute investigation of trauma. It is a movie about grief, and at the end of it, our friend—Cassie Thomas—is taken away. We are left in shock, bereft. 

The movie goes on for another ten minutes or so. We never see Cassie’s face again. 

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