Promising Young Woman sets a new standard for a storied genre

The film delivers on all its premises

Promising Young Woman is one of the first of the genre to include a woman’s response to trauma.

Photo courtesy of Amazon

The “rape revenge” subgenre has a long, uneven history in filmmaking. Although perhaps not the first instances of the trope, the ‘70s brought films like Straw Dogs, The Last House on the Left, and I Spit on Your Grave, all of which served to launch the genre to new heights of popularity, perhaps detrimentally. Most of these films feature remarkably similar plots about a central character, almost always a woman, who undergoes horrendous crimes, followed by a tale of bloody revenge.

The problem is that this plotline, one that could perhaps be intriguing and nuanced, almost always devolved into exploitation (even while remaining entertaining). At its peak popularity through the ‘80s, these films grew trashier and trashier. Filmmakers seemed more interested in gory deaths or using rape as a justification for the gore, not in the actual women at the center of the films. A woman’s inner life hardly was broached.

The good news, though, is that the approach to these films has been changing, even if only incrementally. Quentin Tarantino used traditional rape revenge elements and recontextualized them in Kill Bill. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo gave its heroine agency and nuance alongside a heartbreaking backstory, something often deprived in these films. Even more “traditional” films in this space like 2017’s Revenge find ways to empower their heroines, rather than fetishizing their pain for cheap thrills.

The history here is all backdrop for the 2020 film Promising Young Woman, a “rape revenge” film of a different sort. Alongside elements full of dark comedy and romance, Promising Young Woman exists as a refutation to the genre’s history, a reexamining of what “rape revenge” actually entails, and a satisfying entry in the genre, juggling each function like circus performer with a bunch of chainsaws. One may ask, how can a film accomplish something so difficult, fulfilling several different purposes that seem pitted up against each other? 

Well, it’s unclear how another film would accomplish this, but Promising Young Woman succeeds due to an airtight script, confident direction, and a compelling, game cast. In other words, Promising Young Woman works because it’s expertly made and incredibly entertaining. 

The film revolves around Nina (played by Carey Mulligan), the titular promising young woman. A former med school student who dropped out for (dark) reasons, Nina’s day life is the epitome of aimlessness. At thirty, she still lives with her parents (played by the hilarious Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge), she works as an underpaid barista at a local coffee shop, and she seems altogether uninterested in changing her life.

But while her daily life is trivial, at night she comes alive. Nina has taken on a crusade against toxic men, and late in the evening is when she acts on it. Every weekend, Nina gets dressed up, smudges her makeup, goes into male-dominated clubs, and pretends to be blackout drunk. With Nina stumbling around, alone and intoxicated, invariably some “nice guy” comes over to make sure she’s alright. These men end up getting her in a car and take her to their homes, all under the guise of care. The film makes it very obvious what their intentions are, with the men giving Nina more to drink or taking her into their beds. When they’re all alone with someone who can’t remember, these “nice guys” show their true colors.

But, of course, that’s what Nina wants. Once inside, she makes it very clear she isn’t drunk at all. These men chose the wrong woman, and they’re about to truly realize it.

There’s enough there for an engaging, dark film there all on its own, but where Promising Young Woman shows its brilliance is with its romance subplot. See, among Nina’s crusade against rapists, she also begins to fall for the hilarious and charming Ryan (comedian Bo Burnham), a former med school student that pops back into her life. The film progresses and escalates in surprising ways; Ryan is the key to the thematic dilemma Nina faces. Throughout the film, Nina begins to live two lives, one existing at clubs in the dead of night, one in the relationship she builds with Ryan. She’s pulled between two worlds that are incompatible, and the audience gets to journey through her in her struggle. Her past is what drives her to go after these men, but should she let it get in the way of her future? Is it okay to forget the past, even a little, in order to live a happy life now? What is Nina’s responsibility in a broken world full of pernicious men? 

And, most resonantly, can Nina allow herself to be happy?

In a very real way, the film is about Nina struggling between two loves, trying to find a way forward without betraying either one. One of Promising Young Woman’s most brilliant choices in this regard are the striking tonal shifts that allow the point to really hit home. Scenes with Ryan are straight out of a romantic comedy, and a very funny one at that, with awkward dates and random singing and jokes stacked on jokes. The viewer may even find themselves falling in love with Ryan as much as Nina is. But then, at the peak of a romantic scene, the film will suddenly cut straight to another edge-of-your-seat scene of suspense, watching Nina go after yet another rapist or enabler.

The nuance in the dilemma between revenge and evolution is what catapults this film above other “rape revenge” films, setting a new gold standard for the genre. Where other protagonists would be expected to doggedly pursue revenge at all costs, and in a way that the audience could revel in the pursuit, Nina’s inner emotional life makes every choice a shade of grey. Yes, these men are bad. Yes, they deserve to be punished. But at her expense?

Promising Young Woman is a lot of things, but the top one is entertaining. Watching the film pulls the viewer in, prompting them to squirm and their seats, laugh, and gasp in a matter of minutes. This is not a movie someone can be bored in. It’s a film that has a social message, yes, but the message enhances the entertainment rather than detracts from it. In other words, Promising Young Woman fulfills its promises to the audience, and then some.

This is a selection from the Feb. 3 issue. To view the full issue, visit:

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