Promising Young Woman is a vengeance flick done right. Too often we salivate at the main character hunting down his female relative’s killer and meting out justice, street-style. Any story deviating from the formula gets shredded by angry, armchair experts of storytelling. The internet tends to give airheads a digital megaphone to eviscerate someone else’s brainchild.
It’s frustrating, I tell you.
Who can forget The Last of Us Part II? Who can forget the unnecessary, and totally uncalled for, opprobrium that Naughty Dog was subjected to? All because the game’s main character spared her father figure’s killer to end a cycle of violence.
Have video game critics ever thought that when things DON’T go according to plan, for the main character, it’s actually a GOOD thing? Think of this in a real-world context: Does vengeance really solve anything? Can vengeance alleviate emotional pain for a real person in the real world?
If the answer to the questions above is “no”, then why do we celebrate stories that indicate the opposite is true?
“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.”Romans 12:19
A Lost Year for Cinema
So, some background: 2020 was a garbage year for films. It was a garbage year for entertainment all around, period. The bygone cinematic greatness that was 2019 just made it all the more painful. High peak followed by a low valley. Balance in all things, as Lord Thanos uttered.
The only escape we were afforded year-round was the news networks and their prickly COVID coverage…which wasn’t much of an escape, to begin with. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo actually won an Emmy for reading off of his PowerPoint slides!
Yeah, it was THAT bad, folks.
Fortunately, Promising Young Woman was released just days before the year ended, offering shut-in filmgoers a well-deserved sense of reprieve. Fitting, too, as all the artsy Oscar-contenders are put out during the fourth quarter, year after year.
Could Promising Young Woman win anything this year? Uh, what’s it up against, again? Sorry, theaters were closed last year and RedBox served us B-movie junk on a rusted platter.
A Promising Young Woman
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
Promising Young Woman follows jaded 30-year old Cassie (played by Carey Mulligan, who I only recognize from the only Doctor Who episode I watched). Cassie is also a chronic failure-to-launch case, still living with her parents and all. She was, as the title implies, supposed to be a prodigal up-and-coming career woman.
Sadly, Cassie dropped out of med school years earlier following the sudden suicide of her close friend and classmate, Nina. She spends her days toiling at a coffee shop and nights psychologically destroying would-be bar rapists.
A Past Still Lived
Cassie is stuck and lives in the past, both physically and mentally. Her bedroom is arranged for a teenage girl. She still wears a scrunchie on her wrist while scribbling in her notebook. Cassie records the names of all the men she gave a what-for in her crusade against nighttime bar rapers.
You see, Nina was raped while in college. Cassie’s friend was drunk and taken advantage of by a group of male college students, led by Al Monroe, in an incident that was recorded on video. If real-life events are any indication, Nina’s violators didn’t get their just desserts. Instead, they got off scot-free thanks to the inherent difficulties surrounding rape convictions.
A Girl Ungrown
Cassie dwells on this one moment in time and refuses, or is unable, to move forward with her life, much to the consternation of her parents and peers. She seeks potential rapists in bars to gain the satisfaction of humiliating them when it turns out she isn’t really inebriated. She not only wants self-forgiveness, she wants revenge.
The thing is, revenge isn’t, and can’t, be carried out by the victim. Rather, it’s karma (or God, what have you) that gets the job done.
Lethal Passivity in Revenge
Midway through the film, Cassie meets defense attorney Jordan Green (Alfred Molina) who’s absolutely wracked with guilt over his role in Monroe’s acquittal. He went so far as to destroy Nina’s credibility and reputation just to secure a not guilty verdict. Like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Green’s conscience has imprisoned him in a cell far worse than a concrete tomb with barred windows.
Upon seeing Green’s current state, Cassie backs off from her planned killing of him via a hitman. She learned that there are far better ways to get revenge that ironically require you to do nothing at all.
New Loves to Replace Old Loves
And that’s what it appeared when she met Ryan Cooper, a quirky guy who happened to enroll at the same med school she did. He’s a pediatrician with a genuine interest in her. It appeared these two would drive off into the sunset towards a bright, warm future, leaving the cold past behind.
Or so we thought.
Back on the Streets Again
After (non-violently) exacting revenge on another one of Nina’s violators, Cassie procures a videotape of her rape. To her horror, she discovers that Ryan participated in Nina’s assault by filming the entire incident, which he never mentioned to her.
And that was it. Cassie lost the anchor keeping her inert on the sea of her visceral desires. She was back on the path to destructive vengeance. No longer would she settle for something bloodless.
Cassie tracked down Monroe to his cabin retreat while celebrating his bachelor’s party. Posing as a stripper, Cassie got Al alone in his room with his plastered drinking buddies passed out downstairs (courtesy of rape drugs). Now, it didn’t seem Cassie had any intention of killing Al. No, death is too easy. People need to live longer and live with the consequences of their choices.
Al needed to live with Nina’s name cut into his flesh. A symbol he could never take off (Inglorious Basterds, anyone?).
And this is where the film ditched conventional territory in favor of quality storytelling. Al broke free of his plush cuffs and smothered Cassie to death with a pillow.
Ending in Death
This plot point wasn’t random or done for shock value, no. Cassie’s vengeance hath consumed her. She had the choice of walking away from life’s usual tragedies and living for the future. Instead, she dwelled on the immutable past and became stuck there. Forever.
Sure, she and Nina eventually got payback in the form of the video being mailed to Monroe’s former attorney. Sure, the police ended up arresting Monroe at his own wedding, but Cassie wasn’t present to see it.
If you want to satisfy your thirst for revenge, do so at your own peril. You may literally sacrifice your own life just for that brief moment of empowerment.
And it is written, the Lord hath said “Vengeance is mine. I will repay.”
Vengeance is not a straight arrow that hits a nearby target. Rather, vengeance is a nuclear weapon that consumes far more than one person. Vengeance leaves a fallout in its aftermath, with effects that linger for years to come.
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