Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Revenge is no tasty dish

Warning: Spoilers for "Promising Young Woman" incoming. 

Revenge stories are a classic in movies. Usually they involve some wronged manly man who then goes on a rampage to rectify things, usually by killing everyone, which somehow makes it okay. Look no further than half the filmography of Gerard Butler (especially the atrocious "Law Abiding Citizen"). Tarantino mixed the genre up by switching the manly man into a female woman, but that has gone stale since then, too.

I now watched a very different revenge movie that I feel the need to talk about. It's from 2020, and it's called "Promising Young Women". The movie premiered at Sundance and got quite a bit of buzz. It's the first by director Emerald Fernell, starring the always excellent Carey Mulligan and equally excellent Bo Burnham in the main roles and a smattering of great actors in the smaller ones. The plot of the movie sees Cassie (Mulligan) posing as a drunk in clubs on weekends, getting picked up by men trying to take advantage of her, and then confronting them about what they're doing. She collects an impressive collection of men that way - in fact, as she tells one of them later in the movie, it happens EVERY SINGLE TIME. And the thing is, watching it, you instantly believe it. We men are a shitty bunch.

Over the course of the movie it is revealed that Cassie has an ulterior motive: during med school, her best friend Nina was raped during a college party, no one believed her and her life was destroyed. Cassie dropped out with her and is on a quest to get at the people responsible since then. She targets a female student who is of the opinion that it was Nina's fault for drinking, the Dean who didn't believe the accusations and even forgot about Nina, the lawyer who got the culprit out and finally said culprit himself, who since made a career as a doctor.

To make a long story short, she succeeds on the first three counts and then has an epiphany. Revenge doesn't really solve anything, live needs to go on. She scuttles her revenge operation and starts a relationship with her ex-college mate Ryan (Burnham), who seems like a really nice guy. Unfortunately, she succeeded to well: her former female college mate is so shaken by the experience that she confesses to owning a video of the incident that made the rounds back then. Wouldn't you know it, Ryan was present as well.

Cassie goes back into revenge mode, forces Ryan to spill the location of the culprit's bachelor party and goes there to finally fulfill her revenge. It goes south, though, and in a fit of mad desperation, he murders Cassie. The murder gets covered up, the police assumes that Cassie was unstable and doesn't really investigate, and the wedding commences. At that point of the movie I thought "They're getting away with it again", and it made total sense. After all, the system that once damned Nina was still in place.

But then comes the ultimate twist: Cassie actually deposited multiple dead drops telling everyone where she was going and to search for her if she didn't come back. The police finds her corpse, arrests the culprit, and Ryan gets a scheduled message on his phone: "You thought this was the end. But it isn't. Enjoy the wedding. Love, Cassie. ;)"

The smiley at the end is, I guess, supposed to be a fist-pump moment. But I sat in front of the screen, numb. I get what Fernell was going for here, but for me, it was a huge letdown. One, the culprit was arrested (and likely convicted) for murder, not for what he did to Nina. That would have been totally superceded by Cassie's fate.

Two, I don't like the idea of suicide that serves as the coup de grace on the revenge target. It's one of the main reasons why I really disliked "Thirteen Reasons Why" on the conceptual level already (apart from being a mediocre show at best). People's lives have meanings, not their deaths.

Three, it's too personal for me. Cassie on her crusade made the fight general, against a patriarchal system that's obviously shitty and in dire need of reform, but in the back half of the movie, it becomes about her personal quest for revenge. When the culprit is arrested, we're supposed to cheer, but nothing at all will have been improved by it.

There is the added problem of Nina's agency. The movie does the smart thing where we never see Nina aside from a few teenage photos. She's a ghost, and people don't remember her. She's only bearing overly large on Cassie's psyche, which isn't exactly healthy.

Only, Cassie's crusade goes against the express wishes of even Nina's mother. Would Nina want this? It's hard to say, but the movie never adresses this issue, and in the finale, it all gets superceded by Cassie's death and revenge-by-proxy anyway.

And that's a shame, because the movie tackles an important topic with a message people need to hear loud and clear. But that message gets muddled, and I can't share the satisfaction I'm supposed to get from the finale.


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