Film Corner: Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman

[Content Notes: Rape, Suicide, Murder]

Finally getting to watch Promising Young Woman, which I've been wanting to see since the trailer. We open with a bunch of men at a bar complaining about a female co-worker who doesn't like being discriminated against. They notice a drunk woman sitting alone at the other side of the bar and fantasize about how women "like that" are putting themselves in danger. The nice one goes over to ask how she is; she drunkenly reveals that her phone is missing, which means she can't get home via the "ride app". He offers to take her home, but takes her to his place instead and pours her more alcohol (giving her the stronger drink). (Kissmate: "I would be worried for her if I didn't know the twist.")

And now he's kissing her even though she's practically comatose while sitting up; she's clearly not reciprocating in any way. He takes her to bed and jumps on her, telling her she's "safe" while she quietly asks "what are you doing?" and says "wait" and he refuses to stop. After a pause, she sits up and asks in a clear voice: "I said, What are you doing?" Slam-cut to credits and her walking home in the morning with her heels in her hand. There's red on her shirt that seems like blood but is revealed to be a condiment. Construction workers catcall her about her "fun time last night" and she stops, looks at them, and lets it be awkward until they swear at her and stalk away.

At morning breakfast, her parents gently berate her for working such late hours at her coffee shop and tell her to "speak to a manager" about her long hours. She has a log book with names and tick marks; unclear what they mean yet. At the cafe, she meets an old classmate from medical school and he's confused why she's working in coffee shop. He awkwardly apologizes and then tells her she can spit in his drink as payment for the insult, so she does. He isn't fazed by this and asks her out.

Another scene, another home with a guy who insists on pushing her to take cocaine even to the point of putting some directly in her mouth. He talks about "what it's like to be a guy these days" and how she'd be prettier without makeup; she asks him to call a cab and he refuses, insisting that she can't leave yet. He starts rubbing his hand up her clothes and she grabs his face playfully and repeats herself clearly. This freaks him out and he demands that she leave now that she's sober and awake. "I'm a nice guy!" "Are you?" She reveals that she does this every week: goes to a club, pretends to be drunk, and a "nice guy" comes to check on her. She asks if he wants to fuck now and he says no. "No one ever does." Back home, another name and tickmark in the diary.

It's her 30th birthday at home, but Cass doesn't remember. Her mother berates her for not having any friends, plans, future, etc. while her father tries to play peacemaker. The present is a pink suitcase: "the fanciest get-the-fuck-out-of-our-house metaphor" ever. The coffee shop boy shows up again to reveal that she gave him a fake number and he'd really like to date her for real; she's skeptical but he offers a safe word if she needs to nope out. At lunch, they have obvious sparks but he doesn't understand why she quit med school when she was so brilliant and knew everything. "Just didn't want it enough, I guess," she deflects.

He leads them by his apartment and asks if she'd like to come up. She agrees (she's such a good actress--you can *see* her steeling herself to go into her "helpless woman" mode), but he can see she's not really wanting this so he backs down and they agree that he'll go up alone and she'll call a cab to go home. Next day she ambushes him at work to mumble that she's here to pick up her herpes medication. "You have herpes too! That saves us an awkward conversation!" Oh no, I like him. What if he's awful like the others? Kudos to the movie script for giving us the exact same dilemma she has! That's not easy!

She tells him she'd like to see him again but that they need to take it slow. Her friend at work is delighted to realize that Cass seems happy. (Kissmate would here like me to note that my dinner fortune cookie I opened just now said, "To love is to give. To lust is to get." and that it seems appropriate somehow for this film.) Ryan starts talking up the old days and the group from med school and reveals that "Al" moved back from Europe to live here; he works with Ryan and is about to get married. Cass goes home and looks him up on Facebook to see a wall of friendly comments, including a gushing comment from "Madison" (who Ryan thought was close with Cass, but which Cass reflexively denied).

Cass dresses up and heads to dinner at a fancy hotel to meet with Madison. Mads quickly gets day drunk while they reminisce and Cass watches her. Cass waits and says she wants to talk about why she dropped out. "You remember. Do you ever think about it?" Cass asks if she'd now listen if a friend came to her and said something bad had happened the night before. Madison gets angry and says--and it's still not clear if Cass was the one who was raped or if it was the mysterious "Nina" we keep hearing about--that she wasn't the only one who didn't believe it, and that if someone "sleeps around" then you can't be expected to be believed "when you say something's happened." (Our best guess so far is that Cass, Nina, and Madison were friends; that Al raped Nina; and that Nina died from suicide when others didn't believe her, leading Cass to drop out.)

Cass says she had been hoping Madison would feel differently by now "for your sake". She walks to the end of the bar and gives a key and money to a strange man, telling him "she's over there. Room 25." Well, that's terrifying. Let's see where this goes. Smash cut to Cass' coffee shop and Madison is calling Cass: 13 missed calls and several voice mails. "I woke up in a hotel room and I think something may have happened, I'm freaking out a little." Cass crosses out a page with Madison's name and turns to the next page: Walker.

Well, I'm not sure entirely what just happened, but I think Cass just cleverly kidnapped a 16yo (maybe?) who thinks she's on her way to meet her favorite band. Smash cut to Cass waiting in an imposing office while Dean Walker (dean as in the school, not dean as in the name) is ready for her. Walker, a woman surrounded by old portraits of white men, asks what has prompted Cass' desire to resume med school. Cass says she left under unusual circumstances, that she left over what happened to Nina. Walker doesn't remember Nina. She remembers Alexander Monroe--he's a successful graduate who recently returned to give a speech at his alma mater!, she gushes--but doesn't recall the accusations against him.

Cass reveals that Al raped Nina repeatedly in front of his friends and that she was covered in handprint bruises. Dean Walker puts on the standard administrator's "solemn voice" and asks if it was ever reported. "Yes." Does Cass know to whom it was reported, pen poised to discipline someone. "You," Cass reveals. "But you can't remember, so." Walker backpedals quickly saying they get accusations "like this" all the time, "once or twice a week", but assures Cass that she must've looked into it thoroughly. Cass points out that there were multiple witnesses and Walker punts to talking about alcohol and witness memories. "None of us want to admit when we've made ourselves vulnerable, when we've made a bad choice."

After Walker insists that she can't ruin lives by investigating them ("they're innocent until proven guilty," she reminds Cass), Cass agrees that boys deserve the benefit of the doubt. That's why she's picked up Walker's daughter and introduced her to the guys who live in that room now. "I noticed they had a lot of vodka in their room, but I'm sure they'll treat her right," she assures a panicking Walker. Walker screams at her to tell her where her daughter is and Cass says, "I told you: the room Nina was in that night." They hold eye contact while we cut to the secretary smiling at hearing Walker wail in pain; I guess she doesn't much like the dean. Defeated, Walker sinks into her chair. "You're right. Is that what you want to hear?" Cass says it must feel different when it's someone you love. She reveals that Amber is *actually* sitting in the diner waiting for her favorite band.

Heading home, Cass runs into Ryan and she realizes she accidentally blew him off for a date. She reschedules and he asks if she's okay because she seems a little spacey. She heads to a bar and begins to play her too-drunk-to-stand act. (Kissmate: "Oh, god, this is what she does to calm down.") As a mark helps her out, they bump into Ryan. He heads off and Cass' hunt for the night is ruined. Even more scary: her mark heard about what she did "to Jerry" (being sober and chewing him out). Scary because (a) he's out hunting women even knowing that this is a possibility, and (b) if she'd gone home with him, I'm not sure what would've happened. Previous marks were too paralyzed with surprise to be angry with her; I'm not sure that works if the mark has heard of this sort of thing before and perhaps mentally practiced what he would do in such a situation.

On to the next target: Alfred Molina opens a door and says he's not practicing law anymore. Cass tells him it's his "day of reckoning" and he says he's been waiting and that there's "no use hiding from the piper". He told his office to give his name to anyone who asked. She asks him if he remembers Alexander and the girl that the lawyer threatened and bullied until she dropped his case. Shocking both us and Cass, Alfred says he remembers her: Nina. That seems to kick the anger out of Cass; she was expecting another Walker. Alfred talks about how the firm got bonuses for dropped cases, and how they had a guy whose entire job was to comb through social media accounts looking for "compromising" photos that will upset a jury. "I'll never forgive myself for any of this." Cass, stunned by his confession and crying, says, "I forgive you" and touches his back. She walks back to the car and tells a companion that she'll still pay him but that she's canceled the job. (Murder? Rough him up?)

Cass heads to reminisce with Nina's mother, Melissa. They laugh and talk but the mom tells Cass that she needs to let it go, move on, and stop this. Cass apologizes that she didn't "go with her", presumably meaning go with Nina to the party where she was assaulted. Nina's mom says she's sorry too but that she needs to move on from that night.

Facebook announces that Al has a bachelor party. Cass deletes her account rather than dwell, and throws her book of Bad Men into the garbage can. She heads to Ryan's house to try to explain. She says that what happened the other night is hard to explain but that it'll never happen again, promise. Ryan isn't sure about this (understandably!) and she heads out and back to the coffee shop. Ryan stops by and asks her to dinner and they kiss and it's very cute. I pause to check the time. Oh no. If we had 5 minutes left, this would be a happy ending. But we have 53 minutes left. I'm really scared that may mean Ryan will be unsafe.

The relationship goes amazingly well for a while, then Madison ambushes Cass at her house. She's a nervous wreck about what happened that day, but Cass assures her that the guy didn't touch her; he put her in bed, staged the room in some way, and kept an eye on her to make sure she was safe. Madison tells Cass that the incident made her think about Nina and that she's remembered something: there was a tape. The guys took a video of Nina's rape and "everyone" got a copy of the video because it was a big joke at school. And Madison still has her copy. "I don't know how we all watched it and thought it was funny."

Oh no. Oh no. Ryan is on the tape as one of the laughing friends. I was so afraid of something like this.

(Side note: The tape is done well. We never see *anything*. The camera stays entirely on Cass' face the entire time so we experience her pain and don't have to see the assault. I really am impressed at how the film-makers were so careful to not make voyeuristic rape scenes in a movie that was obviously going to be marketed to rape survivors. I appreciate that.)

She thought she finally found a good guy and now this. Fuck. She visits Ryan at work and shows him the video. Cass tells him that she'll send the video out if he doesn't tell her where the bachelor party for Al is. Ryan relents and tells her, then repeats that he loves her and that he wants her to forgive him. "No," Cass says and walks out. Ryan goes on the attack and asks if she's perfect, if she's never done anything she's ashamed of. He says he can't live with the threat of this hanging over him. "Poor Ryan, just an innocent bystander." He yells at her and calls her a "fucking failure" (since she isn't a doctor).

Cut to Cass in a sexy nurse outfit, an amazing tri-colored wig, and an arrangement of "Toxic" with violins that is bone-chilling. She has the men kneel and feeds them vodka. (Possibly drugged? Let's find out.) A close-up shows she's wearing a broken heart BFF necklace that says "Nina" and boy that's not a punch to the gut. Cass takes the groom upstairs and cuffs him to the bed; god, she's so smart and good with people when she wants to be. (Kissmate: "This is like the opening of Charlie's Angels when Kristen Stewart says men take seven seconds longer to recognize a threat from a woman than from a man.")

Al asks her real name and she says "Nina Fisher". He immediately recognizes the name and begins to panic, asking which of the guys put her up to this. He says Nina is dead, so there's our first confirmation of that. (We were pretty sure, but the movie has been very gentle about trauma.) Cass pulls up a chair beside the bed while Al yells for the guys. She says they're all passed out by now because "if there's one thing I learned [at college], it's how easy it is to slip something into a drink."

He starts putting the pieces together and realizes she's Nina's friend. He asks what she wants. "I want you to tell me what you did." Al begins to struggle and panic, yelling that he "didn't do anything" and that "we were kids" and "maybe she regretted it" but he "didn't do anything". "She was into it," he says and Cass brings up the video; Al clearly doesn't remember that or perhaps he never knew. Al starts to cry and Cass reveals that Nina dropped out even though she was top of her class, and that Cass dropped out to take care of her; Al, in contrast, graduated magna cum laude. I'm screaming; she *dropped out* to take care of Nina and everyone from school blissfully asks her "why did you drop out again? you were so smart!" and they never cared to put it together or remember. It wasn't even a blip on the radar of their lives.

"I was affected too, you know; it's every guy's worst nightmare, getting accused like that."

"Can you guess what every woman's worst nightmare is?" Cass deadpans at his tears.

Cass pulls out a medical bag and Al begins to struggle and scream. She talks about how Nina had been before the rape, and how the trauma crushed her. She climbs onto Al planning to write Nina's name on him, but he breaks one of the handcuffs. He gets her under him and places a pillow on her face, trying to suffocate her to death with his knee. It's long and brutal and very much like a rape, which is... well, it's a good way to demonstrate just how violent rape is, when a violent assault is filmed like a rape. When Cass goes still, Al bounces a few more times in an attempt to break her neck. I'm... I'm not sure she isn't dead. Fuck.

Next morning, one of the guys comes up to check on Al. He tells his friend she's dead; Al is crying and worried about his job, about his fiancee, about jail. He swears it was an accident and his buddy starts working up a cover story: "we'll all swear she left last night. She stripped and then she left. This is not your fault. You did nothing wrong." (Kissmate: "Wow. This is society.") We cut away to outside the cabin, where the guys are burning Cass' body and all the evidence. The soundtrack sings an ironic song about a man who isn't perfect but tries. Irony.

Cass' parents talk to the cops, but the disappearance is a dead end: the cell phone was turned off and she can't be tracked. The parents insist that she'll come back. The cops talk to Ryan who is surprised to hear that Cass is missing. He puts the pieces together but doesn't fess up about the bachelor party; he "confirms" Cass' fake story that she went on a work trip. Then he sells her out entirely by "admitting" that Cass was suicidal, a thing he knows she was not. (Me: "YOU BASTARD.") Even confronted by what he did back in college, he's still the same person he was then: standing by the Boys.

We see Al's wedding and Ryan hangs with the buddies and acts uncomfortable. His phone dings with a scheduled message from Cass. ("YES, I KNEW IT. YES.") The reformed lawyer opens a package with the phone evidence of the taped rape and a note telling him where she went, when, why, and to give the letter, phone, and package "to the police" in the event of her disappearance. (So...I guess we're still fantasizing that cops actually care about prosecuting rape? I was hoping for something more personally damaging, like a scheduled video drop of the taped rape to the entire wedding guest list.)

Back to Ryan, the message says "You didn't think this was the end, did you?" and cop sirens sing out. (I guess the letter to the lawyer was earlier and we're only being shown it now.) Juice Newton sings "Just Call Me Angel" and it's wonderful. Cass' boss finds a letter with Cassie's matching broken heart necklace. Cops and body-sniffing dogs find Nina's necklace in the ashes of her body. "Enjoy the wedding!" Cass' message dings to Ryan. YES, YOU'RE AN ACCOMPLICE NOW, RYAN, CUZ YOU LIED TO THE COPS. The cops arrest Al and Juice sings us into the credits while we cry.

Boy, that was an emotional rollercoaster. Jesus. Wow.

I don't even know how to review that. I thought I would either love the movie or hate it, and I definitely didn't hate it. I...think it's very different from the standard revenge narrative. Having the victims *realize* what they did was wrong and become...maybe not "better" people, but *different* people? Madison realized how horrible it was that she thought the video was a funny laugh moment and not serious evidence. Dean Walker realized that the situation isn't "well, girls just shouldn't drink!" when it was *her* foolish boy-obsessed daughter. The lawyer had an emotional breakdown over what he'd been complicit in. I love a good revenge narrative--I adore John Wick--but this was something else. This was like a revenge-and-redemption narrative.

Fantasy? Yes, obviously. Walker had an epiphany rather than calling the cops in a fit of white woman anger. But aren't all these movies where rape is taken seriously ultimately "fantasy"? Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is a fantasy where the rapists are held accountable by police who are trained professionals and compassionate people. This is a fantasy where a survivor goes around to the people who harmed her friend and forces them to confront what they did. She makes them change, or she makes them accountable to others. Al loses his job, his wife, and his freedom. Ryan loses his girlfriend and his confidence in himself as a good guy, a friendly person.

God, what a gut-punch Ryan is. He was so careful to respect her boundaries. He wasn't the sort of man who would be caught as one of her marks in the bar. But he WAS one of the guys who would stand by and nurse his drink and do nothing while one of his buddies "took her home" to rape her. He was one of the guys who would close ranks and protect a rapist. He did it before and he did it again, and that hurts.

I don't think this movie hates men; the lawyer is a good guy, Cass' father is a good guy, and the cops are (ugh) apparently good guys. I think it's noteworthy that there are as many women involved in the rape culture as men: Madison, Dean Walker, and all the other girls at the college who presumably also received the video (like Madison) but didn't come forward. And I think this movie wants to be as safe as it can be for survivors; I was impressed by how the filming was careful to approach sensitive topics gently, almost like an in-movie trigger warning, rather than dropping them unexpectedly in our laps like emotional bombs. The scenes with violence--the rape video, and the murder--are filmed carefully to center Cass, and I appreciate that.

I...think I liked that movie. I don't know if I ever want to see it again, but it'll stick with me for a long time.

Late Night Thoughts That Came Later: I really appreciate that all the men in this movie, all the *people* who supported rape culture, are "nice" men. The first man in the bar stands up for a female coworker experiencing misogyny. The murderer at the end is *also* a seemingly decent guy who doesn't want to cheat on his fiancee and who treats the hired stripper with humanity and kindness. (He is only willing to go upstairs with her because "otherwise I don't get paid".)

If this were a standard revenge narrative as written by someone like Joss Whedon, everyone would be a secret frothing misogynist just waiting for the chance to unleash a slur. These people aren't like those Hollywood villains. They're normal "nice" people who support rape culture in the ways that normal "nice" people do, because that's how rape culture perpetuates. They find rape uncomfortable and so they don't investigate it. They don't ask questions. They want to believe in the unknowable mystery of "he said, she said" because it's easier to believe in an unsolvable conundrum than to face the truth that multiple people witnessed a terrible thing and said nothing or even outright covered it up. And I appreciate that because it makes the movie feel real rather than a sort of Kill Bill-esque narrative where misogyny is done by Bad People and never by Good People.

Also: Several times during the movie, I had conflicted feelings about how dangerous Cass' hobby is. Just one of these men could turn violent and hurt her. I felt like it was in-character for her not to *care*, but I wanted the movie to acknowledge that. The fact that it ultimately does, via the murder, *and* we see that Cass knew the risks because she took precautions in case she didn't return is very validating because her choice to take risks becomes an explicitly in-character choice and not something that the narrative just doesn't acknowledge or doesn't realize is there. See also: Why I'm glad Joss Whedon didn't write for this movie.


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