“I’m a nice guy,” so sayeth countless sleazy scumbags who take advantage of a woman they perceive to be drunk, and pointedly, incapable of saying no to their sexual advances — and going by Cassie’s (played by Carey Mulligan) notebook in 2020’s Promising Young Woman, there are a lot of “nice guys” out there.
That’s the premise, basically, of the film, where Cassie goes out to bars, pretends to be falling-down drunk, and then allows, up to a point, men to take advantage of her. Typically, that involves letting them take her back to their apartment and right before a line is crossed, she reveals to them she’s stone cold sober. That, obviously, freaks them out. One guy ran off screaming, “You guys ruin everything!” Womp womp. Consent sure ruins everything, huh? Scumbag.
“But I’m a nice guy,” they protest. Each and every single one of them. And yet.
To back up, I’ve been enjoying going back and “re-discovering” the films I remember seeing previews for in late 2019 and early 2020, but fell through the cracks of the pandemic and release date hell. Promising Young Woman was one such film. Unfortunately, it’s not available on any streaming device, so I had to rent it for $6 on Amazon Prime Video.
The impetus for Cassie to do this drunken charade and mark each new guy down in her notebook, is because while at medical school, her friend, Nina, a “promising young woman,” (a nice inversion of how in our media, you often hear how a man accused of rape was a “promising young man” prior to those accusations) was gang raped on film by fellow medical school students. And nothing happened to them. Instead, the primary rapist finished top of his class (because Nina, who was at the top, dropped out). And the one raped? She killed herself.
This film, a timely one, in which it’s hard to extricate it from a #MeToo mold, is difficult to watch. I actually thought it was going to be difficult to watch because it would be a hard R-rated film, where Cassie is brutally killing would-be rapists. Instead, there’s basically no violence, save for the ending scene (more on that in a moment). Rather, it’s difficult to watch because it’s difficult to watch men be scumbags and nothing happen to them. All the success in the world continues coming their way.
And worse yet? There are women right along with them enabling and justifying the behavior. That’s seen most prominently in the characters of Madison (played by Alison Brie) and Dean Walker (played by Connie Britton). Both more or less offer the explanation, “It was Nina’s fault because she was getting drunk all the time.” That Nina more or less put herself in those positions. Victim-blaming, in other words. Even more than victim-blaming, they also turned their attention to the consideration of the “promising young men” with their “promising careers.” Yuck. Meanwhile, they’ve completely forgotten about Nina.
Yet, even that’s not the worst. The worst is that Cassie, with the help of a stern talking to from Nina’s mother and with her love interest, Ryan (played by Bo Burnham), who seems like a genuine, real-deal “nice guy,” she seems to finally be getting better and able to move past the trauma of losing her best friend in so horrific and unjust a way.
Until Madison gives Cassie a phone with a recording of the gang rape. Cassie plays the video. Ryan is on the video! He was there. My mouth was freaking AGAPE. Even this seemingly real-deal nice guy was another one of those “nice guys.” Gah. That was crushing and it was appropriately crushing to Cassie.
Her next move (after threatening Ryan with blackmail in the above-pictures scene) was to go after Al (played by Chris Lowell), the rapist at his bachelor party by pretending to be a nurse stripper. She drugs all the other guys and then plans on carving Nina’s name into a handcuffed Al’s body. He’s able to break one of the handcuffs and smothers Cassie to death with a pillow. I did not see that coming. I was shocked again. It is rather ironic that the only violent scene in the film is Cassie’s death at the knee (he was kneeling on the pillow) of the rapist.
But fortunately, all of these scumbags, including Ryan, aren’t going to get away with it. Despite Joe (played by Max Greenfield) stepping in like the ultimate scumbag to help dispose of Cassie’s body and never speak of it again, Cassie had a back-up plan. She mailed the phone (with the video) to the defense lawyer, who previously saved the boys but since repented to Cassie, and a letter detailing what to do if she turned up missing. The police find her body and arrest Al. Heck yeah.
What a movie. My only criticism of the film is that holy heck, the soundtrack was loud. I would turn the volume up loud to hear the dialogue and then the soundtrack would kick in and I’d have to rush to turn the volume back down. Whew.
Perhaps the most irksome refrain Cassie kept hearing from the boys involved was: “We were just kids.” Worse than the, “I’m a nice guy” refrain, “we were just kids,” is total BS. We’re talking about people in medical school! Medical school! The average age of a medical school student is 24! That is not a kid. That is tantamount to a “boys will be boys” defense. 24 is a darn adult and there is no excuse for that behavior. You’re learning how to operate on other human beings, so, I think you’re capable, or ought to be capable, of understanding consent, boundaries and bodily freaking autonomy.
Two final thoughts of note: 1.) I don’t think the word “rape” was ever used in the film, which is a fascinating choice. It didn’t need to be used because those who were involved knew exactly what they did. That was the thematic point; and 2.) This was, believe it or not, the debut film for Emerald Fennell, who directed and wrote the screenplay. Impressive and nice table-setting for a … promising career.
I highly recommend this film, even though it’s not easy viewing because it’s essential viewing.