Directed by first-time filmmaker Emerald Fennell, ‘Promising Young Woman’ is a revenge fantasy that knows well when to restrain itself and when to let go. The end product is a well-crafted mix of black comedy and mystery drama that flirts with the notion of being an exploitation thriller. From the beginning, the film establishes itself as a commentary on modern society.
It showcases a world in which a heinous crime like date rape has become so commonplace that there is a near-infallible infrastructure in place to protect the accused. It also dissects the expression “not all men” by demonstrating that the only difference between the so-called alpha males and self-proclaimed “nice men” is the latter group is less blatant in their actions. SPOILERS AHEAD.
Promising Young Woman Plot Synopsis
The main protagonist, Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas (Carey Mulligan), is the person that the title is referring to, along with her late friend Nina. The two were bright, young women attending medical college, slated to do great things in life. But after Nina was raped while being under the influence of alcohol, they both dropped out. Nina died at some point, and Cassie’s life seems to have been caught in limbo. She lives with her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge), who often drop not-so-subtle hints that they want Cassie out of their home and restart her life.
Cassie is still grieving for her friend, whose rapist, Alex “Al” Monroe (Chris Lowell), was never punished. So, every week, she immerses herself into the nightlife of her city, pretends to be drunk, and waits until some guy comes over under the pretext of helping. However, almost unfailingly, they take her back to their homes and tries to take advantage of her while she seems completely inebriated. It is then that she makes the men aware that she is sober, giving them the shock of their lives. This is her way of atonement for the sheer injustice that was done to her friend.
One day, Cassie comes across an old acquaintance from college, Ryan (Bo Burnham), at the shop. A pediatric physician now, Ryan says that he has always harbored feelings for her. They soon start dating. She learns from him that he is still in touch with other students from medical school, including the ones who were directly involved in Nina’s case. This sets her on a path of vengeance. Her first target is Madison (Alison Brie), who was quite close to Cassie and Nina. Despite this, she sided with Al, claiming that drunken behavior and promiscuity were common with Nina.
After forcing Madison to confront the same situation as Nina had all those years ago, Cassie goes after Elizabeth Walker (Connie Britton), the dean of the college, who also supported Al. Her third target is Al’s lawyer, Jordan (Alfred Molina). But when Cassie shows up at his house, saying that his reckoning has come, Jordan readily accepts it. In the intermediate years, he has come to regret what he did as a lawyer for Al and others like him.
Seeing what Jordan has become and after a conversation with Nina’s mother, Cassie decides to seek a normal life with Ryan. It is then that Madison gives her video footage of the incident. Much to her horror, it shows that Ryan was among the boys who were there during the rape. With her brief hope for normalcy gone, Cassie forces Ryan to tell her Al’s whereabouts. Cassie learns that Al is getting married, and his friends have thrown him a bachelor party.
Cassie shows up there as a stripper, successfully drugs all of his friends, and convinces a reluctant Al to take her to the upstairs bedroom. Once there, she handcuffs him to the bedstand and reveals her identity. She tells him that she will carve Nina’s name on his body. But he manages to free one of his arms and pins her down. In the ensuing tussle, he smothers Cassie to death with a pillow.
Promising Young Woman Ending: Is Cassie Dead or Alive?
The morning after the party, one of his friends, Joe (Max Greenfield), finds Al with Cassie’s dead body beside him. He makes a panicking Al calm down before helping him cremate Cassie in secret. The subsequent missing person investigation doesn’t go anywhere. Ryan, seemingly the only person who knew where Cassie was going that night, lies to the cops. He knows that if he tells the truth about this, that video will eventually come to light as well, jeopardizing his position at his workplace and in society.
This could have been the end of the film, with Cassie being yet another victim of a culture that seems to overwhelmingly support the perpetrator. It didn’t, because she had contingency plans. Before going to Al’s bachelor party, she sent a mail to Jordan, telling him where she was going and asking him to give all the content of the mail to the police if she goes missing. After Al’s wedding, the police arrive and arrest him, while Ryan receives several scheduled messages from Cassie.
Brilliant as she was, she knew that her death was always a possibility when she decided to go to the cabin where the party was being hosted. She accepted the risk, even counted on it, so she can bring justice to the person who destroyed her friend’s life. Each of her act of retribution is represented by the addition of a vertical mark to her tally. When she arrives at the cabin, it’s only the fourth mark. The horizontal slash denoting her fifth act of retribution appears after the police arrive at the wedding.
As she tells Ryan in the scheduled message, this is the real ending and signs off for both herself and Nina. Her final act of vengeance is quite symbolic as well. Cassie doesn’t wear her part of the heart pendant that day, but of Nina’s. When the police locate the place where Joe and Al cremated her, they find the necklace. This helps them identify her remains, which ultimately leads to Al’s arrest. In death, she ensures that Nina has a role to play in punishing her rapist.
Why Did Cassie Go to the Bachelor Party?
Following Nina’s death, Cassie removed herself from the world at large. Without any real ambition and passion in her life, she has become the husk of what she used to be. Her sole source of pleasure these days seems to be tormenting the potential rapists. That changes when Ryan walks back into her life. His ridiculous inoffensiveness, combined with the mild tenacity with which he pursues her, ultimately wins her over. Cassie genuinely feels sorry when Ryan sees her during one of her nightly excursions.
It’s not because she is ashamed, but because she believes that she has wronged him. Her conversation with Jordan leaves her deeply disturbed. When she goes to speak to Nina’s mother, the older woman urges her to live her life. Standing at that important juncture of her life, Cassie chooses to hope again. She scraps the plans she made for Al and takes the initiative to reach out to Ryan. They reunite, and she introduces him to her parents, who, in turn, begin to hope as well.
The revelation that Ryan was also there during the incident breaks Cassie beyond repair. The shock and heartbreak she experiences, there is no coming back from that. When she confronts him, he offers the tired, old response that he was “just a kid.” She finally sees him for what he truly is, a coward who adheres to his moral values when it suits him. After that, it becomes rather easy for her to blackmail him into revealing to her the location of the cabin where Al’s bachelor party is going to be hosted.
Read More: Is Promising Young Woman a True Story?