This year, eight films are in the running for Best Picture, the most prestigious award at the Oscars. That’s a lot of movies to watch, analyze, and enjoy! So in the days before the ceremony on April 25, Vox staffers are looking at each of the nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?
Below, Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson, senior correspondent Alex Abad-Santos, culture writer Constance Grady, and critic at large Emily VanDerWerff talk about Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennell’s much-discussed darkly comedic revenge thriller starring Carey Mulligan.
About that ending — and what it does (or doesn’t do) for the film
Alissa Wilkinson: I think it’s fair to say Promising Young Woman is the most talked-about of this year’s Best Picture nominees. Some of that’s owing to the dust-up that happened when Carey Mulligan’s criticism of a Variety review ended with the publication issuing a “correction.” Some of it’s simply because people have had very strong reactions to the movie, particularly its ending.
I admire the film more than I like it. I don’t think it does what it sets out to do, yet I think the idea of punishing predatory men (and the women who aid them, unwittingly or otherwise) by making them feel the same vulnerability as their targets is pretty brilliant. And I can’t deny that Mulligan’s performance is brilliant; I’m kind of a huge fan of Bo Burnham’s performance, too.
Luckily, I know there’s a wide variety of opinions about this film among this group. So, to start off, tell us what you think and why you think it.
Constance Grady: I’m in a similar place as you, Alissa. I admire a lot of what Promising Young Woman is aiming for, and basically everything about the style and the aesthetic and the tone works for me: all those candy colors! That sinister all-strings cover of “Toxic”! But I think this movie has some fundamental flaws that really damage the whole thing too much for me to love it as much as I’d like to.
I’ll start with some of the good stuff. The casting in this film is uniformly terrific (maybe it’s because Emerald Fennell is an actress as well as a director?). Carey Mulligan traditionally plays smart and sweet, so it’s effectively jarring to see her grind all that sweetness down into various tones of rage, with one shade to match every color on her rainbow fingernails. We know who we think of Mulligan as being, and when we see her abandon that persona, it makes us really feel that we’re watching Cassie abandon all her potential: such a shame about that promising young woman.
And the male cast is populated primarily by the sweet beta males of comedy, reimagined here as predators. Seth Cohen from The O.C.! McLovin from Superbad! Schmidt — Schmidt! — from New Girl! It’s an incredibly effective way to spotlight the way we allow masculine points of view to drive our storytelling. Every last one of these predatory men thinks he’s the hero in his own romantic comedy, and we know that because we have seen all of them playing heroes in romantic comedies. (It’s part of why the long section where Cassie starts to trust Bo Burnham’s character plays like a really, really good rom-com that is also somehow intensely sinister.)
I also love the aggressively feminine tone of the framing in this movie. All those cotton candy pinks and baby blues blaring out of the screen, all those shots of Cassie with her hair in long angelic blonde waves as she glares a man down: The vibe is the same as the aesthetic that Tumblr got really into in the early 2010s, which it called weaponized femininity. Girl shit so sharp that it cuts. I’m here for it! It’s a great way to make a woman’s rage feel visceral and cinematic.
But as stylish and evocative as Promising Young Woman is, for me, it kept falling short of committing to the premise it laid out. And probably the best example of that shortfalling is the ending. (Spoilers follow.)
In the film’s final setpiece, Cassie begins to enact her revenge on her dead best friend’s rapist (Chris Lowell, Piz from Veronica Mars). But right at the key moment, he manages to turn the tables on her and kill her. And at first, it looks as though he’ll get away with it — until we find out that Cassie, foreseeing her potential murder, left a stash of evidence behind with instructions to send it to the police if she never came back. The rapist and his accomplices are arrested, and the film ends with Bo Burnham’s character getting a pre-scheduled text of a smiley face from Cassie.
I find this ending so unsatisfying!
I want to be clear here: I know it bothers a lot of people that the film ends with Cassie’s death, but I actually appreciate it a lot that she dies. Cassie spends the whole movie getting her revenge primarily by giving bad men a stern talking to and walking away from it without a scratch on her. I mostly found that choice unsatisfying and unearned, particularly because this film has aspirations toward realism rather than being a straight revenge fantasy. Cassie’s not supposed to be a superhero, and frankly, if it were that easy to talk down a rapist twice your size, we could all do it. I wanted the film to take it seriously that Cassie was in real, physical danger, and her death accomplished that feat effectively for me. It felt honest.
I also appreciated that Cassie’s death paid off one of the ideas that Promising Young Woman laid out early on, which is that her revenge was not going to be cathartic and sexy. It was ruining her life. She was turning herself into a weapon that would destroy her from the inside out. It was bad for her. On that level, this story really couldn’t end in any way other than with her death. All of that works for me.
What does not work for me is Cassie getting her posthumous revenge through the police.
Part of what Promising Young Woman is about is the idea that Nina was destroyed not just by Al Monroe, but by the systems in which she lived. The school that failed to protect her, that allowed her to drop out and fall apart, and allowed her rapist to graduate and thrive and flourish. The culture that taught her friends that she was asking for it, that she did not deserve their belief or protection, that her rape was something to watch and laugh at. That’s why Cassie has to aim her revenge not just at Al Monroe, but also at the dean of their med school and also at her bitchy ex-friends. It’s not just one bad man who ruined Nina’s life. It’s the whole system.
So if it is the whole system that ruined Nina’s life, the whole system that Cassie needs to take her revenge on — well, why am I supposed to find it either believable or satisfying that the police will somehow fix everything now? Are the police somehow not involved in rape culture? Are they somehow not symbols of the very violent male patriarchy that this movie just spent two hours telling me was fundamentally corrupt and needed to be destroyed? Far be it from me to quote Audre Lorde lightly, but, you know, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
Or am I being too hard on the ending here? How do the rest of you feel about what Promising Young Woman is trying to do?
Emily VanDerWerff: Promising Young Woman is the Oscar movie this year that I disagree with basically everybody about. When people call it a searing masterpiece, I say, “Really? Come now,” and when other folks dunk on it endlessly on Twitter, I get a little offended on the movie’s behalf. I think it’s a terrific film from one extremely specific and narrow reading and kind of a disaster from any other point of view. It is a movie that is trying to be about everything and about nothing all at once, and that’s really, really hard to pull off. That Fennell almost pulls it off — or maybe does! — is to her credit.
My read of the movie as terrific largely derives from its ending, which I view as intentionally unsatisfying. We know how unlikely it is that Cassie, who has been depicted as a worn-down nubbin of PTSD through most of the film, would be able to get her revenge from beyond the grave. Promising Young Woman has so skillfully created a world (largely through casting, as you point out, Constance) where we have been asked to understand how most other films would be told from the perspectives of its men that the ending’s sudden shift into exploitation thriller is jarring.
But I would argue this jarring nature is the point of the ending. The framing suddenly becomes less immediate and more dreamlike. The story plays out not with the logic of reality but with the logic of a movie. The impossible becomes possible because that’s what we expect in a movie. And yet the coup de grace here — somehow, Cassie knew before her death exactly when to text Ryan for maximum chaos at the wedding — underscores just how unbelievable the whole scenario is.
The ending is asking you not just what justice could possibly look like in this situation but how unlikely receiving justice within the system built up to privilege men even is. Cassie has to become a genius supervillain to make any of this work, and that cuts against everything we’ve seen from her character so far. She’s a long-term planner, but only to a point, tending to see the people she wants to take down as a series of stepping stones. Her schemes are rarely more elaborate than “pretend to scare someone,” and we’re meant to feel queasy about her actions when punishing some of her targets (especially Alison Brie’s character). That we’re now meant to cheer her on is whiplash-inducing, and when a movie inspires whiplash, I tend to think it’s trying to do something beyond its most obvious surface-level pleasures.
The original script for Promising Young Woman (which is floating around the internet) ended with Cassie’s death. That image of her body’s burnt fingers on the lakeshore was meant to be the film’s final shot. But Fennell wasn’t able to attract financing to make that version of the movie, which was seen as too dark. So she added this ending instead, and while she’s defended it in interviews, I can’t help but see a bit of “fuck you” in the whole affair: If Hollywood financiers (who are mostly men) won’t make this movie without a triumphant payoff, then give them one so over-the-top that it’s almost impossible to take at face value.
To be fair to the ending’s detractors, Promising Young Women’s last 15 minutes feel like Fennell reverse-engineered an entire movie from wanting to tell a story from the point of view of a stripper who dies at a bachelor party (an unfortunately common trope), and if you really do think the movie wants to lift Cassie upon its shoulders and hail her in triumph, then I agree it’s pretty much a disaster. But I held this movie at arm’s length until that ending, and then I felt extremely thrilled by how go-for-broke its ridiculousness was. That’s a really tricky thing to pull off!
Alex Abad-Santos: I don’t know what it says about me that my favorite movies over the last year were Minari and Promising Young Woman.
Part of that I think speaks to how fucked up 2020 was. Part of it speaks to how much Promising Young Woman was created in a lab specifically for me:
Carey Mulligan? She deserved the Oscar for An Education.
Jennifer Coolidge playing so unnervingly against type as Cassie’s mother? Absolutely.
Alison Brie as a suburban mean girl and tool of the patriarchy? Yes.
A movie that made me realize that people aren’t wrong when they say Bo Burnham is hot and then immediately shames me for agreeing? Let’s go.
A soundtrack that not only includes a waxy, instrumental version of Britney Spears’s “Toxic” but also a shiny, metallic cover of “It’s Raining Men” and an homage to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind?” I need this movie to step off of my neck.
But what worked for me overall, I think, is that I was never really rooting for Cassie, whom Mulligan plays perfectly. We meet her and she’s a husk of a person and by the end, as she prepares to ensure Al Monroe pays for what he did to Nina, she’s still a husk — a dry, barely existing, semblance of a human. Fennell goes to great lengths to show you how miserable Cassie is and how her revenge consumed her.
Cassie’s tragic existence is solidified in that moment when she’s talking with Nina’s mom (played by Molly Shannon) and is told, with pity, to get off this train. There’s also the moment when Ryan sees her trying to take home a target, and it’s shocking how sad her life has become.
No doubt the system failed Nina and broke both of them, but I think we’re meant to see that something isn’t quite right with Cassie, as her obsession with Nina goes beyond friendship in a way that’s designed to be flawed and uncomfortable. Even if she were to get away with punishing Al Monroe, Cassie would still be hunting for more man prey.
The genius and provocative thing about Fennell’s vision is that Cassie’s complete self-destruction, maybe more so than the revenge, becomes the thrilling fantasy. I found myself wanting to see Cassie do a little more than just scare the men off, a testament to how Fennell constructs mood through spacing and camera work.
I also think the ending would have been more powerful had the men gotten away with everything. But Cassie’s death is such a fantastic turn because of the way Fennell mythologizes her power and makes us feel the weight of how incongruous and unfair it seems to be that she is mortal, and fragile even.
Do I trust the police to rightfully prosecute the bad guys? No, as the entire movie told me that authority figures don’t care about women’s lives. But I’m also not totally convinced that total retribution was ever going to be Cassie’s or the movie’s final goal. It was more selfish than that.
Could a film like Promising Young Woman ever really win Best Picture?
Alissa: One reason I’ve grown to really respect Promising Young Woman even though I have problems with it — mostly having to do with the ending — is that here I am, talking with three colleagues, all of whom I consider to be very smart and to have good opinions about things, and we are all spread out across the spectrum on this one. It’s fabulous. Cinema!
I think the Academy will have a lot of opinions, too — though people obviously liked the film enough to give it five nominations. Despite the ever-diversifying makeup of the organization, I have a hard time imagining a film like Promising Young Woman winning Best Picture (though maybe not if we were in the more daring 1970s?). I can imagine some people’s negative reactions matching others’ strong ones. Then again, maybe that’s what could get it in the door.
What do you think? Does this feel like an “Oscar movie” to you? And do you think that Mulligan’s kerfuffle with Variety could help or hurt it? Does it matter?
Alex: Promising Young Woman feels like an Oscar movie the way 2018’s The Favourite (which I also loved) felt like one. In addition to Best Picture, it’s also nominated for Best Actress, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing, but the only big award I can see it winning, without much surprise, is for Mulligan’s performance. Maybe that’s because I have a deeply cynical view of the Academy and how that organization gave Best Picture to Green Book over movies like The Favourite, Roma, Black Panther, and A Star Is Born.
Promising Young Woman just feels like a movie that’s too raw, too untidy, and too polarizing to ever win Best Picture.
Meanwhile, I’m not sure any normies care about the Variety kerfuffle as much as industry insiders do. And my takeaway is that it seems like Variety’s mess. A reviewer wrote his review, which he’s allowed to do. Mulligan responded to the reviewer’s critique of her movie, which included a discussion of her appearance, which is well within her right. And Variety’s decision to print an apology, which I don’t think Mulligan was asking for, was up to the powers that be at Variety.
Anyway, Mulligan in my mind is already an Oscar winner for An Education — a movie which had much better Best Picture chances than Promising Young Woman does.
Constance: Since Alex is bringing up An Education, which is one of my favorite movies, I just want to take a second to geek out about Fennell’s use of Alfred Molina as the lawyer who repents for his sins. In An Education, Molina plays the father of Mulligan’s character Jenny. He is obsessed with controlling Jenny’s life, ostensibly in order to make sure she has a bright future. But he utterly fails to protect her from a charming and predatory older man, a fact for which he will eventually apologize in tears.
And now in Promising Young Woman, Molina is back as Mulligan’s father figure. He’s playing the only aspect of the patriarchy that knows itself to have failed these young women and to apologize for it.
It’s just a nifty little meta touch. The casting in this movie really is brilliant across the board, and if there were an Oscar for casting, Promising Young Woman would be a shoo-in.
But Best Picture? I don’t see it. It’s one of the least-nominated films of this year’s Best Picture nominees (five nominations total compared to Mank’s 10), and both Alissa and Alex are right: It’s a shaggy, messy, polarizing movie. And it’s not even about how movies are important, like Mank. As this conversation would attest, that’s part of what’s fun about it. But there’s very little about Promising Young Woman that feels like something the Academy will want to crown.
Emily: Though I am conflicted about Promising Young Woman as a whole, I will be very sad if Mulligan loses the Oscar for Best Actress. She holds this movie together through sheer force of acting talent, and that’s not riding down the work of anybody else involved in the film. Fennell’s script is just a complicated mix of tones, and even if you think the movie ultimately fails in balancing those tones, I can’t imagine looking at Promising Young Woman and not seeing how central Mulligan is to holding it together. (I keep trying to think of another actor in her rough age range who might have pulled it off and coming up blank. Tatiana Maslany maybe??)
In the end, Promising Young Woman’s victory is in its nominations — a nod toward Fennell’s talent and a promise of more to come later if she can keep it up. (If the film does win in another category beyond Best Actress, I suspect Fennell will take Original Screenplay, the same prize she won at the Writers Guild of America awards. Promising Young Woman is the kind of flashy, concept-driven script that sometimes wins the Original Screenplay race — though her main competition, Aaron Sorkin’s script for Trial of the Chicago 7, is stiff.)
That maybe sounds like faint praise, but it’s so hard to imagine a movie like this becoming an awards season juggernaut even three years ago. Regardless of what you think of it, you’re bound to have a strong opinion, and that people kept talking about it and talking about it and talking about it surely drove the Academy to recognize it. It’s the rare movie you don’t have to love or even like to enjoy. Being infuriated by Promising Young Woman is almost as fun as being enraptured by it. I’m glad it’s part of the Oscars conversation, even as it wouldn’t be on my personal ballot.
What to watch and read after Promising Young Woman
Alissa: Okay. So given all of what we’ve said, I’m curious: If someone really loved Promising Young Woman — or liked what it was going for but had issues with execution — what would you direct them to check out next? Movies, TV, podcasts, books, all are fair game.
Alex: I’m going to let Emily take the swing with I May Destroy You, which feels like a companion to Promising Young Woman in so many ways. I’ll suggest a little left-field choice from a few years ago: a comic book called Bitch Planet.
Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Valentine de Landro created a dystopian world where women who are deemed “non-compliant” are imprisoned and forced to kill each other in a battle royale.
On the surface, it’s a bunch of bad bitches thriving against all odds in space jail, but there’s an emotional core to it as well. The idea of “non-compliance” is so arbitrary and wielded so unconsciously by the men in power that innocent women are being locked up. The comic delves into each woman’s story about how she got there — probably unfairly — and about her plans to get out.
DeConnick told me back in 2017 that she was inspired by exploitation films — which Promising Young Woman also seems to be inspired by — and wanted to create a story in that vein that didn’t feel exploitative. She wanted to thrill without making it feel icky or lascivious. And one of the things she said she wrestled with, and what really gnawed at her, was the idea that she should have all the answers about the system, about what revenge looks like, about what readers should take away from the comic. That seems very uncannily similar to Promising Young Woman and our reactions to the film.
Constance: I walked away from Promising Young Woman in a state in which I often find myself; namely, sort of wishing the movie I had just watched had just been Jennifer’s Body instead.
Jennifer’s Body, with a screenplay by Diablo Cody, direction from Karyn Kusama, and starring Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried, was widely panned on its release in 2009. But over the past few years, it’s been subject to a critical reevaluation as a feminist cult classic. And it succeeds in doing what Promising Young Woman, through no fault of its own, was advertised as doing but not actually that interested in accomplishing — being both a cathartic rape-revenge thriller and a nihilistic deconstruction of the genre. Plus, it also features Adam Brody playing against his Seth Cohen type as a sexual predator.
Jennifer’s Body is the story of two high school girls who are best friends. Jennifer (Fox) is a beautiful cheerleader; Needy (Seyfried) is supposed to be a nerd. (She does still look like Amanda Seyfried in a pair of glasses, so, you know, suspend your disbelief a bit.) One night, Jennifer disappears into the woods with a van full of men who attack her.
When Jennifer comes back, she’s different. She’s been possessed by a demon who feasts on the flesh of men. And it’s up to Needy to stop her.
What Jennifer’s Body does really well is offer us both the visceral, bloody satisfaction of watching Jennifer exact her revenge on the patriarchy, and a willingness to question how fulfilling that vengeance truly is. And it does that while building the whole film around the fraught, messy, but genuinely loving friendship between Jennifer and Needy. I believe in their friendship in a way Promising Young Woman never quite managed to get me to believe in Cassie’s friendship with Nina.
Jennifer’s Body has a different project than Promising Young Woman does. It’s more emotional and less alienating; more interested in satisfying the desires of its audiences than in deconstructing them. But it is similarly interested in wrestling with the genre of the rape-revenge thriller and all its inherent problems — and to be honest, I find the solutions to those problems that Jennifer’s Body comes up with a lot more satisfying than the ones Promising Young Woman comes up with. At the very least, it’s worth checking out as one possible alternative pathway.
Emily: It appears I have been summoned to speak about I May Destroy You, a series that feels a little like it’s in conversation with Promising Young Woman, right down to having tons of people think it’s an excellent depiction of a woman reeling in the wake of a sexual assault, while a handful of others think it doesn’t come close to interrogating some of the ideas that it introduces.
I really love I May Destroy You, and what I love about it rests in the way that the “I” and the “You” in the title shift with every episode, if not every scene. The series explores all of the little ways in which consent is eroded in daily human interactions, sometimes in ways we’ve deemed socially acceptable and sometimes in horrific violations of human autonomy. There’s an episode that ends with a montage of the planet completely falling apart, and it’s almost as if creator/writer/star Michaela Coel is trying to show the full spectrum of destruction we wield on each other, from the petty to the apocalyptic.
That sounds like a bummer, huh? But like Promising Young Woman, I May Destroy You is tonally slippery. It’s frequently very funny, and Coel is a wonderful performer who never quite lets you off the hook as a viewer who might start to pat yourself on the back for how certainly you respect others’ consent. And allow me to say that if you didn’t like the ending of Promising Young Woman, you’ll probably love the ending of I May Destroy You, which hits some of the same beats but in a much more nuanced and complicated fashion.
Also: Jennifer Kent’s 2018 rape-revenge movie The Nightingale is brutal and horrifying and hard to watch, but it’s also the photo negative of Promising Young Woman, forcing you to look at its horrors, then forcing you to see your complicity in them. It’s about the patriarchy, yes, but also colonialism, and if you can stomach it, it’s tremendous filmmaking.
Alissa: The Nightingale definitely would have been my choice as well, for the same reasons and for one more: It shows how we, as humans, use language and speech as a way to dehumanize others and ignore the truth, which is certainly something that happens in Promising Young Woman. I’m also tempted to recommend Paul Verhoeven’s 2016 film Elle, which is ... shall we say, problematic ... but certainly commits to its premise, even harder than this movie, I think.
And Pippa Bianco’s 2019 movie Share takes another look at the same cultural moment as Promising Young Woman, albeit with a very different protagonist and tone. I was drawn in by how it is, on the one hand, about a possible sexual assault, and on the other hand about the tricky ways that teenagers’ social and personal lives complicate the questions of responsibility and truth. This is a tricky theme to explore on screen, and whatever we feel about Promising Young Woman, I am glad filmmakers are trying to capture something that’s so common and painfully familiar to so many people.
Promising Young Woman is playing in theaters and available to digitally rent on platforms including Apple TV+, Amazon Prime, Google Play, and YouTube. Find our discussions of the other 2021 Best Picture nominees here.