A few years ago, a version of me died. I didn’t know what to do as I was being raped, so I turned my head to my right and saw the alarm clock on my nightstand. I saw what time it was and couldn’t think of much, but one of the first things I did think of was who I would be at a minute later. Or another minute later. Or another after that. What I know now is that the person I was before then doesn’t exist anymore. I tried getting him back, but that just isn’t possible. If anything, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll never come to terms with my death and who it left behind. I’ll never stop thinking about it.
Sometimes it’s easier to pretend that who I was before was a close friend I’ve never seen since. It was as disturbing as it was cathartic, then, to see that dynamic in Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman. Our heroine is Cassie (Carey Mulligan), her humor shrewd and her stare strong. She was best friends with Nina since she was a toddler and they did everything as one, their lives aligned to the point that they went to medical school together. Then another student named Alexander Monroe (Chris Lowell) raped Nina while she was drunk. Nina reported it, the dean (Connie Britton) didn’t do enough, and Nina killed herself, all of it leaving Cassie a different person forever.
Of course, no one else fully empathizes with Cassie’s loss, though it’s not for a lack of trying. They simply can’t. “All my friends, they ask about you. I don’t know what to tell them. I don’t know what happened here,” her mom (Jennifer Coolidge) cries at her. “We’ve missed [Nina], but God, we’ve really missed you.” her dad (Clancy Brown) says to Cassie later on. They’re nice gestures, but what no one can grasp is that they’re trying to talk to a dead person. They are, in effect, talking to who Cassie and Nina were symbiotically, and that person no longer exists. Just as Cassie wears a half-heart-shaped necklace with Nina’s name on it, no one wears its counterpart.
We don’t get a vivid picture of who Cassie was before this fallout, and that’s okay. I can’t describe in detail who I was before it happened; it quite literally feels like a lifetime ago. Cassie has undergone similar changes: since Nina’s rape and suicide, she’s dropped out of med school, electing for a part-time coffee shop job and living with her parents. On the weekends, she goes to a club, pretends to be blackout drunk, and lures in “nice guys” that try to take advantage of her before scaring them half to death. However, it’s not a rape-revenge narrative so much as it is a look at how rage and trauma combine when they’re impossible to overcome. The chance of getting over it was unthinkable the second the rape started.
Watching the movie, I don’t think so much about who Cassie will be in the future. I think of who she isn’t—the person and time she’s trying to bring herself back to. It’s clear from the jump that Promising Young Woman doesn’t necessarily see her vigilante work as righteous. Here, Cassie is chasing an imaginary high as much as she’s trying to save some other poor soul from Nina’s fate. It’s satisfying in the moment and rightfully so, but the film never implies that Cassie’s exploits have a specific endgame, or that she herself even thinks they do.
That’s not to say she’s aimless—far from it. She’s been getting more zealous, confronting slut-shaming med school peer Madison (Alison Brie), the aforementioned dean, and the rapist’s lawyer (Alfred Molina). Each response tactic varies in how morally dubious or immediate it is, each result ranging from catharsis to emptiness. In the first scenario, she gets Madison drunk enough to believe that someone may have taken advantage of her. Nothing actually happens to Madison, but it’s only after her scare that she feels a semblance of remorse.
In the second situation, she leads the dean to believe her own daughter has been led into a dorm room full of drunk college kids. And, in the last, Cassie is about to send in a hired man to intimidate the lawyer, only to abort her plans when the lawyer shows genuine regret. She lets the guilty set the moral baseline and perhaps even determine their own fate in each scenario. Unlike a revenge tale, this allows them to accidentally find empathy within themselves rather than everlasting pain.
Hurting others isn’t Cassie’s point. It’s bringing those responsible to the edge without leaving a true scar, something complementary to Cassie’s own pursuit in reaching who she was with Nina. As her mother (Molly Shannon) recounts, Nina had an unshakable moral core. She taught Cassie how to react to injustice just by being herself, and that expanded Cassie as a little girl. Cassie was learning from her better half without even realizing it. She may not be able to learn any more from her friend, but she can relay Nina’s mind and soul to others. It’s the closest she can get.
Cassie never wishes her pain on anyone, and nor do I. We both just want people to see what they don’t see. With each step she takes, they get closer to understanding. She gets closer to who she was with Nina, that kid in the picture in Cassie’s bedroom. She gets closer to who she was before the rape, when their names were spelled with Scrabble letters instead of engraved into jewelry. It seems at times that the only thing guiding her toward the future is Ryan (Bo Burnham), another guy from med school with whom she forms a romantic bond.
But where Promising Young Woman sets itself apart is in its cynicism. It’s not just Cassie’s, it’s the movie’s. And it’s brought to a head when she learns of Ryan’s involvement in the rape. Not only is no one able to truly understand Cassie’s trauma—no one can undo it or stop it from festering even more. It’s here that the movie understands what it’s like viewing the world through trauma: people are neutral at best and evil at worst.
And it hurts. In the wake of unspeakable pain, all I, as a survivor, can do is think back to my rape in the most graphic, unsparing details until I desensitize myself to them. I don’t really know if I can revisit those thoughts enough that I’ll finally break back to who I was before it happened, but at least I can try. I can replay the event and maybe, just once, I’ll feel like I can stop the rape. I can think of everyone who didn’t do enough to help me; I can confront them in my mind. If this sounds like a suicide mission, perhaps it is.
But for Cassie, that goes a step further. Near the end of the movie, she visits and torments Al during his bachelor party, at which point Nina’s rapist himself overpowers and murders her. In death, Cassie and Nina are finally together again as one, and it’s at this point that we finally see Nina’s half-heart-shaped necklace with Cassie’s name on it. The road there is paved with tragedy, but perhaps that’s better than having to live with what happened. Few things are worse than being the only person who can see how you’ve come to a halt mentally. Cassie would die to be able to stop thinking about that. Helping others see their follies is just a nice pit stop before the destination, but it’s no less important.
Promising Young Woman is daring in its approach, but that’s not to say that its conclusion feels like an empty provocation. Even the best moments Cassie experiences are temporary distractions. Her romantic interest––played by a quirky internet star-turned-indie darling––is a terrible person, not an audience favorite. Knowing that, she prepares and goes about her plan with the finality that reads like, yes, a suicide mission. She would give it all up to revisit her better half and the better half of herself. She would die for others to understand just how pervasive that pain is, to again be who she was beforehand. Sometimes I think I would too.
When I see Cassie, I don’t see a hypothetical version of myself. I see what I am. I’m cynical, angry, and all but damned to hold people’s feet to the fire, even if it’s against my own better interest. But maybe that’s okay. In some ways, it’s not like I have a ton to lose. Who I was before it happened has been dead and gone for years now.
The Matt in his place is someone who, like Cassie, forgets when his birthday is coming up and doesn’t care for holidays. Like some sort of cosmic joke, the ways he cares about things and voices his mind worries his family just as much as it inspires them. He’s not out for revenge. He just wants people to understand, but he knows that’s impossible. He wants to be closer to who he was beforehand, but he knows that’s impossible and untruthful to who he’s become.
I don’t know how that old Matt is doing. I don’t know when I’ll see him again either, but I’m sure I’ll see him again someday. I’m just not sure how. What do I know? I know that given our culture’s inability to see rape as a fate just as bad as murder, it’s impossible to get out of this pain alive. I hope it’s not like that for others, but that’s how it is for Cassie, Nina, and me. I’ve come to terms with that. We’ll see you underground.