By MARY KAY McBRAYER
We horror lovers have been tired of the rape-revenge fantasy trope for a long time, and most rape-revenge fantasy horror films fail because they try to fight violence with violence, which is not really the appropriate reaction. In many cases, that’s not how sexual assault manifests – or at least, that’s not the most horrific part of it. Because the effects of rape are in large part psychological, it makes sense that the punishment should be in kind. PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020, dir. Emerald Fennell) is a rape-revenge story that delivers on every front in a subgenre that could so easily have gone awry again. The notable distinction here is that when Cassie (Carey Mulligan) seeks revenge, she first offers redemption – a chance to do the right thing before the person at fault gets their comeuppance – which makes this movie less about revenge and more about the substitution of vigilante justice for when our current systems fail to deliver. [What follows contains spoilers.]
I owe you a disclaimer, as well: Cassie’s best friend from childhood, Nina, is raped at a party during med school. It is terrible, and it is videotaped. And it is terrible. But it’s not only terrible in the moment—it is terrible in the moment, but not only then. After the rape, Nina’s life falls apart, but not because of the rape itself. It seems as though Nina can barely remember it, but everyone else remembers it. Everyone else. Everyone. Though he tries to deny it, Al Monroe (Chris Lowell), the rapist, knows exactly what he was doing in the moment. The other partygoers who witnessed and recorded and circulated and laughed at the rape knew what they were doing, too, despite multiple self-recusings. Cassie certainly remembers it, and how it led to the crumbling of her self-assured best friend since childhood, and she can’t let it go. Even other women, like Madison (Allison Brie) blame Nina – maybe not directly. We are led to believe (and I say it this way because we never see Nina on screen, and we never really see any violence on screen, except for at the very end) that this cultural attack or neglect of Nina and her trauma, rather than the rape itself, is what truly led to Nina’s spiral. Nina drops out of medical school, and Cassie drops out to take care of her friend, which wrecks both women’s professional lives and personal lives. When we meet Cassie, it’s just before her thirtieth birthday at a bar, where she’s pretending to be so drunk she can’t stand so that she can entrap a Nice Guy/rapist. Her whole life is now aimed, unfruitfully, at obtaining vigilante justice for Nina, which the legal systems denied her.
Cassie seems to be righting this wrong one Nice Guy/rapist at a time, but when she encounters by chance someone from her med school past at the coffee shop where she works, she focuses her methods more precisely. First, she invites their formerly-close friend Madison out for champagne. As the booze sets in, Cassie brings the conversation around to the party. Madison explains her reasoning to Cassie at their reunion brunch, “Don’t get blackout drunk all the time and then expect everyone to be on your side when you have sex with someone you don’t want to.” She responds with this, of course, when Cassie asks if, given the chance now, would she still “Roll (her) eyes behind (Nina’s) back” and write it off as “drama?” That exact moment is the first example I can provide of Cassie presenting her potential victims with a chance at redemption… but Madison fails.
As mentioned before, the thing that sets this rape-revenge horror film straight in comparison to others in its subgenre is that Cassie seeks justice, not only vengeance. She has a morality to her madness. Rather than send in a hired hand to rape Madison the way that Nina was raped, Cassie instead sends in a hired hand to make Madison think she may have engaged in intercourse while she was blackout drunk, the exact euphemism that Madison uses to dismiss Nina’s claims. Much like Cassie tells Dean Walker later, Madison just “had to think about it in the right way.”
Cassie says, “It’s different when it’s someone you love,” in reaction to Dean Walker’s realization that her daughter may have been abducted. The dean dismisses Nina’s allegations in retrospect again, by saying, “None of us want to admit when we’ve made ourselves vulnerable.” Similarly, though Cassie does punish Dean Walker for dismissing Nina’s allegations seven years ago, she does not in fact put her daughter in a dangerous situation: she only makes the dean feel what she felt at being unable to help Nina, the person she loves. When Dean Walker understands, Cassie just leaves the dean to deal with her own guilt. In both these instances, the punishment fits the crimes.
Perhaps the most compelling scene in the entire film is between Cassie and Jordan Green (Alfred Molina), the lawyer who bullied Nina into dropping her charges. She shows up unannounced on his doorstep and says, “It’s your day of reckoning.” He replies, “I’ve been waiting for you.” He explains that he has had an epiphany, which his office calls a psychotic episode, and which the viewer can tell immediately is an attack of conscience. When Cassie mentions her friend whom he “certainly won’t remember,” he says, “I remember her. Nina.” And then he explains all the things he did wrong and why—not as a means of excusing his actions, but more as a confession, for this is how a true apology works. Cassie reacts in total surprise, and her discomfort is apparent when Jordan kneels by her, takes her hand in his, and says, “I’ll never forgive myself. I want you to know that. I’ll never forgive myself for any of this.” Through her surprised tears, Cassie says, “I forgive you.” Even though she was ready to hurt him, and even though he wanted her to punish him. (Because sometimes the only way to feel better about your transgressions is to atone.) She even calls off the heavy she had lined up outside. Instead, when Jordan says, “I’m sorry,” Cassie says, “Try to sleep.”
Unlike Ryan (Bo Burnham) who is the Nice Guy unable to recognize his own culpability in an atrocious violent crime, and definitely unlike all the other adults who try to hide their mistakes with the excuse “I was a kid!”, because Jordan Green shows true remorse, he gets to atone not through enduring a punishment (after all, he has already punished himself), but through doing the right thing. This film is satisfying because the rape-revenge fantasy isn’t really that… it’s a justice for rape actualized, even postmortem, and nearly everyone who gets their just desserts is first offered a chance at redemption.
Mary Kay McBrayer is the author of America’s First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster. She also co-founded and co-hosts the horror movie comedy podcast, Everything Trying to Kill You. You can follow her on Twitter @mkmcbrayer and Instagram @marykaymcbrayer, or visit her author site, www.marykaymcbrayer.com.