Review: Promising Young Woman : Pop Culture Happy Hour Promising Young Woman is a revenge thriller, and a dark comedy, and a few other things, too. It stars Carey Mulligan as a woman who spends her evenings in bars being picked up by men who misunderstand who they're dealing with. Directed by Emerald Fennell, the film has been billed as a #MeToo tale, but its perspective feels timeless, and there are surprises each step of the way.

How 'Promising Young Woman' Subverts The Revenge Thriller

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This episode contains discussion of sexual assault.


HOLMES: "Promising Young Woman" is a revenge thriller and a dark comedy and a few other things, too. It stars Carey Mulligan as a woman who spends her evenings in bars being picked up by men who misunderstand who they're dealing with.


The film has been billed as a #MeToo tale, but its perspective feels timeless. And there are surprises each step of the way. It feels safe to say it's a movie that will stick with you long after you watch it. I'm Aisha Harris.

HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today we're talking about "Promising Young Woman" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

Joining us from her home in Denver is Monica Castillo, who is an arts and culture reporter with Colorado Public Radio. Welcome back, Monica.

MONICA CASTILLO, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

HOLMES: And also joining us from Queens, N.Y., is writer, comedian and co-host of the "Bad Romance Podcast" Jourdain Searles. Welcome back, Jourdain.

JOURDAIN SEARLES: Glad to be back.

HOLMES: It's wonderful to see all of you.

Now, "Promising Young Woman" got a lot of attention at Sundance in 2020, partly because of Carey Mulligan and partly because it's just a very unusual and provocative movie. It's written and directed by Emerald Fennell, who right now is also well-known for playing Camilla Parker Bowles in "The Crown" on Netflix. But she also has worked on "Killing Eve." She was the co-showrunner for Season 2 of that.

There's a big cast here. The character's name is Cassie. The guys that Cassie meets in bars and sort of other unsavory situations are played by a bunch of traditionally - what I would call traditionally nice-guy actors - Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Max Greenfield and so forth. Bo Burnham plays a guy Cassie meets who might actually be a nice guy. And Laverne Cox plays Cassie's truest friend, who is also her boss at the coffee shop where she works.

It is a very twisty movie. Let me just say that. And we want to talk about those twists, but we are going to give a lot of warning and take a big pause and a big breath before we do. So first, I want to just touch on some general impressions. Monica, what was your kind of general response to this movie?

CASTILLO: So I had the good fortune of being able to catch that first screening at Sundance, where it got a huge response, lots of applause, lots of cheers. But I remember watching it and being on board for about 80% of it. And then that twist we're going to talk about later...

HOLMES: Yeah, we're going to get there.

CASTILLO: ...We're going to get there - kind of left a sour taste in my mouth.

I had to write the review that night. And it was mostly about, you know, what I liked that was first impressions - Carey Mulligan's performance is amazing; I love her chemistry with Bo Burnham, the cinematography, too - all things that, you know, are worth singling out. But I didn't want to dive into that last act finale with only being, like, one of a couple hundred people who have seen it. So now - you know, now I actually get to dig into this discussion.

HOLMES: Yeah. Jourdain, what was your reaction to this?

SEARLES: It made me very tired.


HOLMES: Yeah, I get that. I get that.

SEARLES: Yeah. I wish I had a more - like, that was my initial reaction. I was just like, I need a drink, you know? (Laughter).

HOLMES: Yeah. And I think - you know, one of the things I wrote about when I wrote about this film for NPR is that it sort of moves through several different kind of phases where you feel like you're watching different movies. It does have those revenge thriller moments. It has kind of generally dark comedy moments, particularly, I think, in some of the scenes where Cassie is meeting up with some of these guys, this scene with Christopher Mintz-Plasse and some of those.

But it does also have elements of this kind of coming-of-age story almost, involving her relationship with the Laverne Cox character, her boss, and also her parents, who are played by Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown, who are both, I think, playing a little bit against type in some ways. They're sort of these worried parents who are trying to figure out kind of what's going on with her. But there's also this stretch in the middle where you really feel like you are watching a pretty good romantic comedy (laughter) with her and Bo Burnham.

Aisha, what'd you think? You also wrote about this for NPR. What'd you think?

HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, we'll get more into the spoiler-y (ph) territory, but I really, really dug the film. I will say I had a similar reaction as Monica did the first time I saw it. It was actually, I think, the last movie I saw in a theater before everything went to - you know, went off the deep end last year.


HARRIS: And so it was quite an experience to see it. And there's so much going on here, and I think that one of the things that stuck out to me the most was the design and the look and the feel of it. I think - you know, there's been lots of articles about this, but the soundtrack, to me, is just really cleverly deployed throughout. I love the use of a sort of string version of "Toxic" by Britney Spears.


HARRIS: I was really into it. I know that those types of things, like, can be kind of gimmicky, but I actually think it worked in that specific scene. I also love that we got a "Stars Are Blind" Paris Hilton montage in the middle of it. And I liked the way in which playing with these sort of girly - quote-unquote "girly-girly" things - the bright colors, the pink, the - I think they're cherries, like, that really cute top that she wears at one point with, like, fruit on it. It just - I loved the look of that countered with the sort of dark undertones and overtones that are happening in the movie.

And so I was completely on board by the end of it. But it did take me on a roller coaster of emotions, kind of in the same way that "Get Out" did the first time I saw it, honestly. Like, I feel like you think you know where it's going, and then it does a complete, you know, 180. So I really liked it. Yeah.

HOLMES: I just thought it was extremely interesting. I like a movie that I sit around and think about for a long time. And I sat around thinking, like, what do I think about this and, like, what's motivating this movie thematically? What's motivating it artistically?

I do want to talk a bunch about that. There is a lot to unpack, as we mentioned at the beginning. So we are going to pivot to a conversation jam-packed with spoilers after the break. You have been warned.

Welcome back. OK. Are you ready? This is the spoiler part about "Promising Young Woman." We are going to talk about everything. You are warned. This is your last chance to hit pause.

OK. So as it turns out, Cassie is seeking revenge on these men because her best friend, Nina, was raped and later took her own life. And Cassie ultimately zeroes in on the men who actually hurt Nina, who turn out to include Ryan, the guy she's been dating, played by Bo Burnham, who she didn't know was involved, obviously, when she started to date him. Also, she seeks out a guy who she knew in med school. She was in medical school, and Nina was, and all of these guys were when this happened.

She seeks out a guy she knew from there at his bachelor party. He's played by Chris Lowell, who you might remember as Piz from "Veronica Mars," also a kind of nice-guy actor. She confronts him. She reveals her identity, who she is. She talks to him about Nina. She tries to cut him with a scalpel. He ultimately subdues her and kills her, smothering her with a pillow. He and his buddy, played by Max Greenfield, burn her body. But it turns out that she has set in motion a bunch of communications beforehand that result in all of these guys being kind of apprehended for their crimes as the film closes.

I have already read a lot of good writing on this film. I expect to read more of it. Aisha, as we mentioned, you and I both wrote about this film for NPR. One of the things that I want to talk about is that, you know, one of the really big turns involves a character we haven't talked about yet, an old friend of Cassie's who's played by Alison Brie. Initially, she's sort of a little bit of a side player in Cassie's story, and then she takes on this increased importance when you realize she has access to a recording of Nina's assault.

Aisha, what do you think is the significance of sort of that revelation?

HARRIS: Well, that was the first revelation where I was like, where is this going? Do I like this, where this is going? And so basically, Cassie goes to meet Madison, played by Alison Brie, who is one of the other people that Nina told about the sexual assault and who dismissed it out of hand. And so she meets her for brunch at this hotel bar, and Madison starts getting really, really drunk while Cassie's pretending to drink, but is not drinking nearly as much.


CAREY MULLIGAN: (As Cassie) So if a friend came to you now into your house and told you that they thought something bad had happened to them the night before...

ALISON BRIE: (As Madison) Cassie...

MULLIGAN: (As Cassie) ...Something bad....

BRIE: (As Madison) ...It was years ago.

MULLIGAN: (As Cassie) ...What would you say? What would you say?

BRIE: (As Madison) Uh - I'm a little weird.

MULLIGAN: (As Cassie) Would you roll your eyes behind her back and dismiss the whole thing as drama?

BRIE: (As Madison) I don't know why you're mad at me, OK? I'm not the only one who didn't believe it. If you have a reputation for sleeping around, then maybe people aren't going to believe you when you say something's happened.

HARRIS: At the end of their conversation where Madison doesn't want to admit that anything she did was wrong or that she had any complicity or just didn't believe Nina when she told them about this, Cassie ends the conversation, goes off. And in the back of the bar, there is a man waiting there who Cassie has paid to take Madison to a room in the hotel and basically wants Madison to think that something happened to her. She wakes up from her drunken stupor later on and thinks, oh, maybe something happened. Who is this guy? I don't know who he is.

And I think, to me, it is a very interesting choice. When we think about revenge thrillers, especially revenge thrillers involving women trying to make up for something - for being wronged, we often see these sort of bloodbaths. I think of "Kill Bill." I think of the movie "Hard Candy" with Elliot Page and Patrick Wilson and this very violent retribution happening. And we don't actually see - get to see that. Like, the whole point of the movie, I think, is to feel like we're working up to that, and then we don't get it.

But what we do see is something more sinister, I think, is to enact this, like, very - like, woman-to-woman, to fake out - presumably fake out this rape, I think, is really just scary and speaks to the darkness that is happening. And so to see this sort of dynamic between women and the way in which women are often complicit - and it's not just about the men; it's not just a #MeToo - quote-unquote "#MeToo revenge tale" in the sense of we're getting revenge on all the men. I just thought it was really bold, and I appreciated those steps. And I realized that they're going to be others who do not feel that way, and I totally respect that. But for me, it worked and I think was a really bold choice to make.

HOLMES: Yeah. OK, Jourdain, I want to come back to what you said about being really tired and sort of what you said about your reaction to this movie. Now that we are in the section where we can talk more specifically about that reaction, talk to me about sort of how the film struck you once you had a chance to kind of reflect on the whole thing.

SEARLES: Yeah. I felt weird, like, before the spoilers 'cause everything that bothers me about it, I couldn't really say.

HOLMES: Yeah, of course.

SEARLES: So I did write about this for Bitch Media. It's one of my more contested pieces. I think that people were mad at me about it because I think I'm one of the few people, like, right out of Sundance that was not adoring to the film. I think that there's a lot of stuff to like about it, like the stuff that was already mentioned - the music, the costumes, the composition. Ultimately, I felt the revenge that she gets isn't really satisfying. And I think that that's my biggest issue with it. I don't really think that the revenge is really adequate for what she's trying to do. Like, she's trying to get justice for Nina's rape. But the way that she goes about it ruins her own life, and that part of it really upsets me.

And so the scenes with the parents where they're just like, you don't have a life. There's a part where she brings Bo Burnham to dinner, and then there's a scene where she's alone with her dad. And he's just like, it's nice to have you back. And this idea that she has been gone, that she has not been herself, that she has not been a self at all, that she has just become this instrument of justice in a way that has completely diminished her personality to the point where she doesn't know what she wants - like, Laverne Cox is like, hey, do you want this other job so that you can afford to move out with your parents? And she doesn't want it. She doesn't like the job that she has. She doesn't do anything fun until, really, she meets Bo Burnham.

And there's also the fact that when she dates Bo Burnham for a while, she won't let him touch her, which I thought was really interesting, which is understandable considering like where she is emotionally. But that's also incredibly sad because it's, like, when was the last time someone aside from her parents has given her a hug, has given her any love at all? And I just found myself incredibly depressed. And most of my piece is about how depressing it really is under all of the candy colors.

HOLMES: Yeah. Monica, it sounds like you had some of those same reservations about the final act of the film based on what you said earlier? Are they similar to Jourdain's? Are they different? What is your reflection on the last part of the film?

CASTILLO: They're very similar. I did leave the film a little deflated. It felt like, after, you know, all of this building tension and things that were leading up to that, and then she dies at the hands of the same guy who destroyed her best friend. There was something in me that kind of made me upset about what it says about survivorship, even though I know it's not a reflection on all survivorship or anything like that. But the fact that it not just only destroys one woman's life, it destroys another woman's life, really kind of got under my skin in a way that I didn't anticipate. So that was one of the reasons why I kind of - like, I admire the film more than I like or love the film.

So it's interesting that we've brought up a little bit about the rape revenge movies as well 'cause I find, like, those kind of fantastical displays of violence distancing. Like, you can, like, set yourself apart from this reality, where this one is a little bit more closer to home, probably, and it's why it's a little bit more uncomfortable and why it just doesn't sit well with some folks.

HOLMES: Yeah. You know, I read yesterday a piece at that I really want to commend to people, which is called "On The Disempowerment Of 'Promising Young Woman.'" It's by Mary Beth McAndrews. And it talks about essentially two things that she feels make the film feel, as the title says, disempowering, one of which is that Nina is not in it and is not kind of heard directly. So it becomes - she kind of disappears from what is really a narrative of her own assault, which I completely understand. And the other is that Cassie dies, right? And so that - in those two ways, it becomes very not satisfying.

And one of the things that I felt when I read that piece was, I agree with it completely, but it's not the critique that I would give because I don't think the intent of the movie is to be empowering. I think the intent of the movie is to be incredibly bleak. I think the story is incredibly bleak. I think the dangling of the rom-com with Bo Burnham followed by the revelation that he, too, was part of this can only be read as a tremendous indictment of the men that a lot of survivors and the people that a lot of survivors find themselves surrounded by.

I think the problem is that when you market a movie like this - even if I were to come forward and say, you know, I don't think this is really the intent of the movie, so I'm not sure that's a quote-unquote "fair critique," when you present something as potentially a cathartic revenge thriller, I am very concerned about people who, as abuse survivors or assault survivors or people who know assault survivors, go into it expecting a sort of a cathartic revenge movie. In a way, you get that. I mean, you get that up to a point. There is a kind of, ultimately, these guys getting rounded up and paying some sort of a price for what they've done.

But the moment in the film that I found the most jarring was actually after she's killed and her body is on this bed and a pillow is over her face still, where the Christopher Lowell character is sitting there kind of in shock that he's killed her, and the Max Greenfield character comes in and kind of doesn't initially understand that, yes, she's dead and not passed out. It just shocked me in this way because I realized that, all of a sudden, I felt like I was watching a completely different movie. To have a movie that is such an internal examination of her feelings suddenly shift like that and all of a sudden you feel like it's a story about these two guys, I think, again, that was, to me, a measure of bleakness - right? - because she has indeed exited the story. And it has - once again, she kind of loses control of that story.

I'm very ambivalent about how the story ends. I also had a friend who mentioned if your underlying thing is that even people who seem like normal, nice men can be very dangerous to other people, then having one of those men turn out to be a murderer kind of undermines, in a way, the message that even the ones that aren't murderers are still potentially menacing. Right.

But I do still think there's a ton of this movie that I admired a lot. There is a moment toward the end that I've talked about a bunch obliquely. When they are burning her body, they play a song that is from "The King and I" that is called "Something Wonderful" in which, without getting too into the "King and I," it's basically a woman explaining why you have to love men no matter how bad they are because sometimes they're great and you just sort of have to put it all aside and love them anyway. And it is a chilling, chilling song in some ways.


TERRY SAUNDERS: (Singing) This is a man who thinks with his heart. His heart is not always wise. This is a man who stumbles and falls, but this is a man who tries.

HOLMES: Placed in that context, it's as much as I've admired, I think, a needle drop in quite a long time.

SEARLES: I was going to agree with you on one point, Linda - that it's definitely not supposed to be empowering. And I do think that it is marketed as if it could be as such. And that was a bit of a problem for me. But I also don't know how they could have done it that would speak to what the actual tone was. And I also wanted to point out that I'm not sure if it is for survivors. I mean, I don't know if it's meant for us. I think perhaps it is meant for the people who perpetuate rape culture. It seems to be pointed at them, which I think is also why we get that shift at the end because it's like we're going to spend some time with these guys and figure out what kind of person they really are, kind of like beyond the kind of jokey way that men are portrayed at the beginning 'cause it's, like - it's jokey in the beginning, and then at the end it's just dark. And I feel like that's deliberate. And, you know, whether or not that's a good choice, it really depends.

HARRIS: I do think that, to me, watching any other sort of revenge, quote-unquote, tale, those aren't satisfying either. Like, to me, often these movies tend to be just about, again, the bloodbath, the catharsis of seeing someone who's been wronged finally, like, go against the grain. For me, I think that part of the issue with calling it a revenge tale doesn't necessarily come from the marketing itself, but comes a lot from just the way the media likes to shorthand things.

And Fennell herself has been very, very clear about sort of her intentions with the film. There was one interview she gave to IndieWire where she talks about how it's less about revenge and more about the cycle of addiction because she is very much just obsessed with the idea of how she's going to get back and avenge Nina's death. And it's clear that she's never going to be able to do that. She's become so obsessed and consumed her life. She's dropped out of school. And Fennell said in this interview, she said, you know, she goes through this. She lets off steam by meeting these men and then, you know, faking them out. And then she has that high, and then she comes back down. And, of course, all of these cycles generally, they go in one direction, and that direction is just self-destruction.

And so I don't know if liked is the right word, but I feel like this was the appropriate way for it to end. Like, I feel like there was - for this story, there was no other way for it to end. And I appreciate the fact that it didn't indulge in necessarily, like, a fantasy of sorts because that, to me, would feel more disingenuous and not as honest, even though it's bleak.

SEARLES: Yeah. And I feel like I need to read that interview because that makes a lot of sense. And I feel like that thesis is best expressed through that one scene with Molly Shannon, which is an incredible scene. Like...

HARRIS: Who plays Nina's mom...

SEARLES: Yeah. And I think that that might be my favorite scene in the movie. Like, 'cause I don't know - I loved all the Bo Burnham scenes. But then when I hit the end, I didn't know if I could love them anymore. But the Molly Shannon scene remains, like, a great scene because she's essentially just, like, this thing that you're doing is not for Nina. It's not for, really, anyone, and you should stop it.



MOLLY SHANNON: (As Mrs. Fisher) Look, I know you feel bad that you weren't there, but you got to let it go.

MULLIGAN: (As Cassie) I'm just trying to fix it.

SHANNON: (As Mrs. Fisher) Oh, come on. You can't. Don't be a child, Cassie.

MULLIGAN: (As Cassie) I'm so sorry I didn't go with her.

SHANNON: (As Mrs. Fisher) I'm sorry, too.

CASTILLO: Yeah. I mean, it's something that you said - that it's a movie that made me think about for a really long time. I mean, my goodness, I saw that now almost a year ago. I'm still thinking about it. My thoughts from that first night have changed, and then I'm rewatching it again. Certain other things have changed. It's not an easy movie, which is, you know, something you actually have to grapple with.

HOLMES: Yeah, I agree. One of my friends called it toothy. And I think that was a good description.

All right. Well, we want to hear what you think about "Promising Young Woman." Whew. We think you're going to think a lot. Find us on and on Twitter @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to you all for being here. This was really, really a great talk.

HARRIS: Thank you, Linda.

CASTILLO: Thank you.

SEARLES: Thanks so much for having me.

HOLMES: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all tomorrow.


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