‘Promising Young Woman’ is a #MeToo revenge fantasy that is galling for its unashamed hatred of men, but glorious for its artistry
Michael McCaffrey is a writer and cultural critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work can be read at RT, Counterpunch and at his website mpmacting.com/blog. He is also the host of the popular cinema podcast Looking California and Feeling Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter @MPMActingCo
This article contains spoilers for the film ‘Promising Young Woman’.
Sometimes a movie says something you intensely dislike, but they say it so well you have to tip your cap. A case in point is the darkly comedic #MeToo revenge fantasy ‘Promising Young Woman’, available on various streaming services.
The film, written and directed by Emerald Fennell, tells the story of Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a med-school dropout consumed with grief and anger over her best friend’s rape and death.
In search of cathartic revenge, Cassie spends her time trolling bars pretending to be drunk to the point of incapacitation so that predatory men will attempt to prey upon her. Once they try to take full advantage of her, she transforms to reveal herself to be a sober social vigilante, shaming men for their repulsive behavior towards women.
Not surprisingly considering the subject matter, ‘Promising Young Woman’ seethes with vicious misandry that is as disturbing as it is relentless. The film is an unabashed girl-power polemic and propaganda piece that espouses the imaginary boogeyman of a pervasive ‘rape culture’ that has only ever existed in the warped minds of Women’s Studies majors and feminist fanatics.
The film’s approach re-imagines the misogynistic tropes of Hollywood’s old male-dominated storytelling by replacing it with an aggressive man-hating that manifests itself as every male character in the film being an utterly irredeemable predator or sniveling coward, or both.
In this way, it is like a feminist dark comedy version of an old Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sly Stallone, Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood movie where one identity group, be it blacks, Mexicans, Russians or Arabs, are reduced to stereotypes and are all the bad guys. Except in this movie, every guy is the bad guy.
Another movie that I kept thinking about while watching ‘Promising Young Woman’ was ‘Falling Down’, the flawed but intriguing 1993 Michael Douglas film directed by Joel Schumacher. In Falling Down, Douglas plays William Foster, a rampaging regular guy who keenly feels that modern life is unjust toward him. ‘Promising Young Woman’ is the #MeToo version of ‘Falling Down’ in that it takes a person’s frustrations at injustice and pushes it to absurd extremes.
Besides finding all men deplorable, ‘Promising Young Woman’ does have some other flaws. For instance, at one hour and 53 minutes, it runs about a half-hour too long in an attempt to find a satisfying conclusion. But the ending is ultimately unsatisfying, because it tries so hard to be satisfying.
The film’s yearning for ultimate girl-power catharsis also transforms it from biting satire into pure revenge fantasy, which ironically ends up neutering the film’s feminist/anti-male social commentary.
When Cassie finally gets her revenge at the end of ‘Promising Young Woman’, this actually proves the alleged problem of a dominant patriarchal rape culture is just an imaginary dragon slain by her in a quixotic fantasy. But if the film had stuck to its artistic guns and let Cassie fail and be left to stew in her rage until the end of time, then it would’ve succeeded in highlighting the prevalence and power of the patriarchal rape culture its premise so adamantly claims.
It may come as a surprise, then, that while I found the cultural politics of ‘Promising Young Woman’ to be as repulsive as the film finds my gender, I also thought that the movie possessed a rage-fueled vitality and artistry that at times was intoxicatingly entertaining, which is a credit to first-time feature director Fennell.Also on rt.com ‘Home Alone 2’ star Macaulay Culkin joins call to remove Trump cameo from 1992 film
My appreciation of the film is also a testament to the beguiling work of Carey Mulligan, who gives an incisive and insightful Oscar-worthy performance that is stunning to behold for its dynamism and detail. Mulligan masterfully imbues Cassie with a righteous fury that animates her every action and it results in a gloriously magnetic performance.
Supporting actor Bo Burnham is also terrific as Ryan, a man with a crush on Cassie. Burnham, a comedian and director himself, is compelling as he tries to be both charming and passive in Cassie’s presence. The chemistry between the two actors comes across as grounded and genuine, and it elevates the film considerably.
It may seem odd that I am praising a film that has such a pronounced cultural and political perspective that I find distasteful and with which I vehemently disagree. But unlike so many writers and critics of today who find it impossible to tolerate anything or anyone in life that doesn’t agree with them fully, I am not only able to tolerate things I disagree with, I can actually appreciate them.
‘Promising Young Woman’ is both a testament to the worst totalitarian and draconian instincts of modern feminism and the #MeToo movement but also a glorious monument to Emerald Fennell’s bold direction and Carey Mulligan’s mesmerizing acting.
I recommend you see the film for yourself, and even though it viciously judges all men, audiences should have enough integrity to honestly consider it on its merits, not just on its pernicious cultural politics.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.