The 2018 Academy Awards were surrounded by apprehension due to the multiple nominations for Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma,” a film produced by Netflix. Filmmakers like Stephen Spielberg spoke out against the film as it was readily available online concurrently with a theatrical release. The COVID-19 pandemic changed these expectations just a bit. This year’s eight Best Picture nominees debuted everywhere; HBO Max, Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime; everywhere, but the theater.
One film premiered without a streaming service, but to video on-demand platforms for a hefty $19.99 rental price. “Promising Young Woman’s” word of mouth was too strong to be deterred by the rental fee and is still within the top five rentals on iTunes.
The film stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a young woman whose traumatic departure from medical school still haunts her. At night, her sorrow turns to vengeance as she acts drunk at local bars, hoping to be picked up and brought home by a “nice guy.” When the gentleman of the night has Cassie alone, his true nature comes out and as he tries to coerce her into intimacy, she snaps out of her stupor. All of these confrontations are part of a path leading up to the one man who has caused Cassie so much pain.
The best thing about this premise is how it engages in conversation with genres from the past. The ‘70s saw a rise in the sadistic and exploitational “rape-revenge” genre films. Movies like “Death Wish,” “Straw Dogs” and “The Last House on the Left” all centered around a poor helpless woman being brutally attacked by nameless men in the first half-hour or so. This disgusting act then enrages the man in the woman’s life as he decides to take violent justice into his own hands. To be frank, these films exist only to have nudity and blood on screens and to get people into seats opening weekend to make a quick buck. The films were quick to shoot, easy to edit, and could get everyone buzzing in the media over controversial topics.
With “Promising Young Woman,” writer-director Emerald Fennell dodges these genre conventions for something that feels fresh. While the core concept of revenge remains, the emotional release is swapped out for discussing society’s problems with victim-blaming and protecting assailants. The film’s title is meant to evoke the phrase “promising young man” that was attached to convicted sexual assaulter Brock Turner. If people are so quick to worry over the future implications of bringing an assaulter to justice because of their promise, why can’t we act the same towards those who were hurt in the first place?
Some have taken issue with the theme of justice in the film and have rightfully criticized its wrap-up as being insincere. For more writing on that, it would be beneficial to search for Ayesha A. Siddiqi’s essay on the film, published on her personal blog through Substack. The film is enjoyable in its own right; however this cultural commentary is important to consider.
While the film could be talked about for days based on its morals, themes and motivations, it just works on a pure entertainment level. Mulligan’s performance is strong as the revenge story could make her unlikeable, but she knows when to play up the absurdities of the plot.
“Promising Young Woman” is nominated for six Oscars, and would be more than deserving of a win for asking something that society has been scared to ask, what happens to the promising young woman?