The Lengths We Go to for Love: On the Ending of ‘Promising Young Woman’ [Spoilers Ahead]
“Love, Cassie & Nina."
Much has already been written, debated, refuted and harangued in regards to the final thirty minutes of Emerald Fennell’s debut feature Promising Young Woman. It’s much less of an out-of-the-blue controversy than the earlier Twitter discourse surrounding another boundary-breaking film directed by a woman, Happiest Season; Fennell herself has spoken openly about the intentional misdirections in her twisted film and the desire behind it to provoke dialogue and introspection on our desire to witness violence on-screen, even when deserved or righteous. However, those thirty minutes are certainly unexpected within the diegetic world Fennell established up to that moment. I do not blame any viewers for finding it off-putting or antithetical to the film’s pre-established tone. However, I would argue that effect is entirely intentional and quite effective. If it makes you uncomfortable, good.
Promising Young Woman follows a brilliant and mysterious vigilante named Cassie (Carey Mulligan) as she works to teach the men and women around her about their role in perpetuating rape culture. During the day, she sports pink clothes and childlike accessories at the trendy café where she works as a barista. At night, she dresses as various personas entirely different from her own. They include an overworked business professional, a hippie with dyed extensions peppered throughout a loose braid, or a regular club-goer looking for a good time. The only thing connecting the different women Cassie plays is their consistent, feigned drunkenness. Every night, a self-proclaimed “nice guy” offers to take care of her and, every night, they end up taking advantage of her...until Cassie reveals she is completely sober.
While we initially assume Cassie is perpetuating far more nefarious retribution against the men she goes home with, she’s simply scaring them straight. That is until she crosses paths with a man from her past (Bo Burnham) who sets her off on a much more personal path to justice. While her relationship to Burnham’s Dr. Ryan Cooper seems to be the film’s central romance, he’s merely a tool for her to achieve greater goals and eventually reunite with her one true love.
As the film progresses, it becomes clearer that Cassie’s motivations stem from the rape and subsequent suicide of her best friend Nina, a girl from the same medical school she, Ryan, Madison (Alison Brie), and Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) attended in their youth. Few critics have dug deep into the intense friendship between the two girls, but I would argue that there are distinct visual and emotional cues that demand us to consider how love (platonic, romantic, or sexual) is the true motivator of Cassie’s revenge and the film's conclusion.
While Cassie’s nightly exploits have never been violent, she changes her tune upon discovering that Al, Nina’s rapist, is soon getting married and will be having a bachelor party in the woods. After blackmailing Ryan—who is revealed to have participated in Nina’s gang rape—for the location, Cassie dresses up as a stripper and drugs all of Al’s groomsmen. She takes him to a bedroom upstairs and traps him against the headboard with flimsy, fluffy pink handcuffs. Once in this mare's nest, Cassie reveals who she really is through a simple gesture; she pulls out a half-heart necklace that has Nina’s name engraved on it. Threatening to scar his entire body with Nina’s name, Al begins to writhe violently, breaking one of the handcuffs and smothering Cassie with a pillow. He spends the rest of the night lying in bed next to her corpse while waiting for his best man (Max Greenfield) to regain consciousness.
The boys bury her body and go on as if nothing happened. Ryan is questioned by the police but goes on as if nothing happened. At this point, Fennell is plainly exposing the darkest realities that lie underneath our bloodthirsty desire for fantastical and gendered vengeance in cinema. This is a rape-revenge movie that refuses to shy away from the horrifying statistics surrounding sexual violence, domestic violence, and murder in the U.S. every year or the deeply pervasive misogyny that treats women and transfeminine people like sex objects and little more.
The final scene shows Al Monroe’s outdoor wedding, where all is beautiful and perfect and white. Ryan, Al, and the groomsmen from the bachelor party are all enjoying their time, getting drunk and feeling free from the possibility of any accountability, when they all receive a text message that spoils their fun. It’s from Cassie. Set to go off at a specific time, just when the police will arrive to arrest Al for Cassie’s murder, it’s clear that everything went as Cassie intended and, even in death, she is getting the revenge she always wanted.
Although rape charges are notoriously difficult to prove, murder is a different story. Would Cassie, whose brilliance is remarked upon repeatedly throughout the film, bring the shoddiest pair of handcuffs she could acquire in order to apprehend a taller, stronger, heavier person than she? Not unless she wanted them to break. While death may feel like an unsatisfying conclusion for her character to some, it made perfect sense to me. In a world where she will always be seen as prey by seedy men in clubs, in a world that indirectly killed one of few people that has ever mattered to her, in a world where the only man she connected to turned out to be a rapist, where does she fit? While movies often ignore the inevitability of death, Promising Young Woman embraces it by allowing Cassie to go out on her own terms.
In the lead up to her fated demise, Cassie’s take on Raguel, the Angel of Justice, sets her sights on two women as opposed to her usual targets. Madison and Dean Elizabeth Walker (Connie Britton) both played central roles in the belittling, gaslighting, and torturous trauma Nina faced during the aftermath of her rape. While Cassie could have spent her last few weeks and days continuing to scare men away from raping future women, it’s telling that she chooses to seek closure not for herself or for all rape survivors, but for Nina.
As a rape survivor myself, I would love to think that my best friends would become murderous vigilantes in the aftermath of my death and work to take down rape culture however they possibly could, but it’s simply not realistic by any means of even my overactive imagination. However, would someone who loved me deeply, unconditionally, and excruciatingly do so? Someone who could never live without me? Maybe. I always come back to the last text that posthumous Cassie sends to a group of rapists and enablers of rapists: “Love, Cassie & Nina." Together at last in death, even if this world were too brutal to allow them that right in life, Nina finally has justice.