‘Promising Young Woman’ is Scary Because It’s All Too Realistic

Photo by xoder, courtesy of Creative Commons

Content warning: This article discusses sexual violence in depth.

Released earlier this year, writer and director Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman works for many reasons: Carrie Mulligan’s ingenue-meets-Barbie-meets-hooker costumes, the moody but irresistibly fun soundtrack, and the one seemingly unexplainable scene where main character Cassie and love interest Ryan perform Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” in the middle of a pharmacy,  just to name a few. However, what really kept me glued to the screen and engaged for hours after finishing it was the movie’s choice of villain: the Nice Guy.

Fennell’s film follows Cassie, a thirty-year-old medical school dropout who spends her days working at a candy coloured coffee shop and her nights moonlighting as her own brand of vigilante. Dressed up, and seemingly heavily inebriated, Cassie hangs out in bars waiting for some considerate guy to take her home. After he is redirected the Uber ride to end up at his place, and once he has made some clearly non-consensual advances, Cassie shakes off her helpless, drunk persona and exposes the Nice Guy’s predatory behaviour. 

Promising Young Woman plays with our expectation that a villain ought to be a monstrous and unknowable Other…

Villains in films are often created out of the monstrous and terrifying Other. This villainous figure is terrifying largely because it is unknowable. When you think of the most iconic villains in cinema––Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, the Joker, the eponymous Alien, Michael Myers, etc.––much of what makes these bad guys terrifying, and equally compelling, is their mutual sense of alienness: no one really knows who they are. What motivates them? Can anything make them stop? Promising Young Woman plays with our expectation that a villain ought to be a monstrous and unknowable Other through the film’s casting and characterization of its villains.

Beyond recognizing all of these nice-guys-turned-predators as they are typecast in their other on-screen projects, I also felt that I recognized every one of them personally.

When you watch The O.C. star Adam Brody take Cassie back to his apartment in the first minutes of the movie, you know where the scene is heading. You feel visceral and almost painful discomfort as you watch him kiss her, tell her how beautiful she is, and remove her underwear. Yet, because of Adam Brody’s popular image as a “nice guy,” you’re hesitant to believe he could perpetrate sexual violence. Brody isn’t the only pop culture “nice guy” that Fennel casts in this thriller. Christopher Mintz-Plasse is also known as the iconic McLovin in Superbad, Sam Richardson was previously in Veep, Max Greenfield is known for his New Girl character Schmidt, and Chris Lowell played a central role in Glow. Fennell uses casting excellently in Promising Young Woman to drive home the tension between the subject matter and its Nice Guy perpetrators. Beyond recognizing all of these nice-guys-turned-predators as they are typecast in their other on-screen projects, I also felt that I recognized every one of them personally.

Fennell’s Nice Guy villain works not only because the audience knows the actors, but because the audience knows the characters. Almost every Nice Guy in the movie could have been your friend, your ex, your brother, or your boyfriend. Part of the film’s strength is how it chooses actors and characters who most audiences could imagine in their everyday lives. 

Explaining her casting choices in GQ, Fennell discusses how her casting aimed to make the audience complicit in the violence. She argues that the tension of the movie largely lies in its portrayal of allegiance: who one chooses to believe because they’re one’s friend, and who one ignores. Fennell set out to make a movie about real people and complicated situations, which, unfortunately, are all too common.

While the movie is clearly surreal at points (see the Paris Hilton pharmacy scene), the basic premise is hyper-realistic––girl goes to university, girl’s best friend gets raped at said university, girl and friend must live with that trauma, but rapist gets to look back on the whole experience as something that happens when you’re “young and drunk.”  Like Fennell says, this scenario is very common.

…he is made unknowable through the simple and terrifying fact that he probably does not know that what he is doing is wrong.

Fennell subverts the classic villain structure of unknowability to the extent that the audience really does know the Nice Guy as the villain onscreen and in our daily lives, but he is made unknowable through the simple and terrifying fact that he probably does not know that what he is doing is wrong. Speaking to GQ, Adam Brody addressed this issue with his character Jerry:

“He thinks he’s being chivalrous. He could have just left her, but he’s rescuing her. And that lack of self-awareness and that self-delusion is really interesting. It’s more commonplace than we care to admit—or are finally starting to admit.”

This is where the fear of the unknowable begins to sink in. None of the Nice Guys in the film know that what they are doing is that bad. Once they are confronted by a sober Cassie, they definitely become aware but, in the moment, it’s just another Friday night. This phenomenon, where Nice Guy predators are able to internally pass off sexual violence as consensual, is unsurprising given the innocuous media portrayals of these kinds of encounters. Writing for the Toronto Star, Nina Metz explores the casual way movies and TV shows portray sexual violence, specifically in the almost universally beloved teen film Superbad

The basic premise of Superbad is that two teenage friends, played by Jonah Hill and Michael Cera, are trying to score enough alcohol to inebriate two girls so that the boys will lose their virginity before college. While this premise is dressed up in various misadventures and conflicts to generate the whole plotline, the driving force of the movie stays the same––getting two hot girls drunk so that they will have sex with two nerdy guys. The boys may not ultimately  be successful in their endeavours, but there is no “aha moment” where they realize what they were doing was wrong, either. Blogger Ryan Megan claims in an article for Metz that if anything, “they’re rewarded for it.”

I would argue that this film should be required viewing for everyone, especially all the “nice guys” who think it might not apply to them.

These media conditions foster and perpetuate a rape culture that produces the kind of predators in Promising Young Woman, and it is what makes them terrify us in their own subtle way. Unlike many horror movie villains, they are familiar to us. We know them but, keeping with the traditional fear of the unknown, we also know that they probably don’t understand that what they do is wrong. Fennell does not reject the possibility that educating these kinds of men is possible. Cassie’s vigilante efforts are, for the most part, aimed at scaring these men enough so that they will think twice about bringing another drunk girl home from the bar. Conversations about consent are becoming more common; however, the situations in Promising Young Woman are not just memories from another, less educated time. They are ongoing. For that reason, I would argue that this film should be required viewing for everyone, especially all the “nice guys” who think the story’s themes might not apply to them.

Overall, Fennell does an excellent job of creating a film which plays with the world of the fantastical and surreal, while telling a story and portraying characters that are, all too frighteningly, realistic. 

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