Hell hath no fury like a woman seeking revenge in a glitzy Western blockbuster. Across the rape-revenge genre, from its B-movie horror roots to flashier modern fare, audiences have seen blood-soaked, almost superhuman heroines wield guns, knives, dildos, samurai swords, and well-placed steep staircases to murder and torture men who’ve done them harm. And on its surface, the latest entry to the genre Promising Young Woman promises the same violent delights. But the movie side-steps Hollywood tropes when it comes to depicting how women seek revenge on-screen, delivering a smart genre film in a sugary sweet coating.
The thriller stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a hardened med-school dropout and barista who uses her free time to school and humiliate predatory douchebags. Every week she heads to a club and pretends to be drunk, teetering at the edge of the bar in sparkly high heels, or slouched in a corner barely able to lift her head up. And like clockwork, a man eventually comes over and asks if she’s OK, takes her back to his place, and tries to take advantage of her before Cassie springs to life with sobriety like a wicked wind-up toy. “You want to fuck me still?” she asks as she corners one of her cowering prey in his apartment. “Nobody ever does.”
But director Emerald Fennell did not want to make a larger-than-life genre film that simply gives into the fleeting exhilaration of seeing a woman scorned inflict the same violence on her abuser. A former writer and producer for Killing Eve, the writer and actress has plenty of experience making audiences fall in love with a charming murderer in Villanelle, but Promising Young Woman served a different purpose. “Women very rarely resort to violence and we as audience members have become very used to seeing that,” she says in an interview with Jezebel. “It’s wonderfully cathartic, but it doesn’t feel real.”
“I wanted to write a revenge movie that felt [like] kind of an approximation of what I might do and what I would be able to do,” Fennell says. “How I might be able to hide things.”
The men Cassie confronts are not the target of her fury in Promising Young Woman, rather her vigilante hobby is fueled by a college tragedy and subsequent grief. Her best friend Nina was assaulted at a party by a popular student, which was witnessed by several others in Cassie’s class, and later died by suicide. When Cassie learns that the rapist in question is recently engaged and back in the area, she begins visiting every single person who let Nina’s assault slip by for their day of reckoning; the female friend who says Nina was asking for it, the college dean who “had to give him the benefit of the doubt,” the defense attorney whose firm combs girls social media profiles for any hint they might have been drinking or sleeping around. Her punishments are precise and only revealed when people fail to apologize for their complicity in letting her friend’s rapist go unpunished.
“Female rage, how it shows itself, it’s so much more frightening and dark in many ways than just punching someone’s lights out,” Fennell says. “To have someone like Cassie who’s clever and meticulous and driven by deep love of someone, that just makes her so frightening because there’s nothing that we kind of fear more than a woman who won’t let go of something.”
But as frightening as Cassie is to the men and women she confronts in her quest to make people remember her friend’s life, Promising Young Woman is wildly fun. The film is unabashedly feminine, shot in pinks and blues, with Cassie in a girlish wardrobe fit for a Barbie doll. When getting Mulligan and producers on board for the film, Fennell created a mood board that included influences like To Die For and Sweet Valley High to capture the film’s dual sweet and malevolent vibe, as well as an elaborate playlist that would mirror much of the film’s pop soundtrack with songs like Charli XCX’s “Boys,” “It’s Raining Men,” and Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind.” “Something like ‘It’s Raining Men’ is wonderful because it’s just one of the greatest female anthems, but when you look at it another way it’s really sort of atrocious,” Fennell says, laughing. “Just bodies slamming down on the concrete, exploding.”
“I wanted to make a film which had all the stuff that I love and care about, which is pop music and stuff that I think a lot of people would say isn’t deserving of cinematic treatment,” Fennell says of the movie’s candied aesthetic, even down to Cassie’s multi-colored manicure. “I usually have incredibly silly, elaborate nail polish myself and I just notice that people in meetings clock it and think, oh, she’s a fucking idiot,” Fennell says. “It’s like, oh well, you wouldn’t expect these hands to scratch your eyes out then, and that’s useful to know.”
“The movie kind of needs to almost be like Cassie, accessible and sweet and fun, because you want people’s guards to be down to really have these conversations,” Fennell says. “You can’t really do that with something relentless, dour, and gray.”
The casting of geeky and seemingly harmless comic actors like Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Sam Richardson as predators also pierces cinematic conceptions of who audiences are primed to see as arbiters of sexual violence. The movie opens with mid-aughts, nerdy heartthrob Adam Brody as a businessman feigning concern for Cassie, only to ply her with drinks later and attempt to assault her. “I said, this is the beginning of a romantic comedy and you’re the nicest guy in the world,” Fennell says of directing Brody. “Only the way it’s written, he’s just performing this alone. There’s no response.”
“A lot of the men in this movie do not think that they have done anything wrong and do not view themselves as predators at all until the moment that they realize they are, because that’s kind of what this culture has done,” Fennell says.
By the movie’s end, without spoiling it, Cassie’s revenge plot spirals into an unexpectedly dark place. And there’s a strong chance that people going to the theater expecting a film with the familiar rhythms of Hollywood’s rape-revenge machine might be disappointed in its ending. But it’s the movie’s unwillingness to submit to a clean, triumphant formula of what catharsis can look and feel like in a rape revenge movie that makes it thrilling. Like bubbly Cassie, and the men offering to help her, Promising Young Woman is more than meets the eye.
“So many women’s lives in particular [are] spent lacquering over the cracks and the more kind of glittery it is, the less people ask us,” Fennell says. “That’s what Cassie does and that’s kind of what this movie does. She’s hiding in plain sight, incredibly traumatized, depressed, distressed, and angry. And she’s learned to hide that very cleverly.”
Promising Young Woman is out this Christmas.