Every night, it’s a bit of the same thing. A woman goes to a bar or club, stumbling around drunk, awaiting a nice man to “rescue” her and take her home. Every night, the outcome is exactly the same. Each man plays the role of the knight in the public eye, but behind closed doors, the act drops. When the guys are ready to make their move, the woman, actually sober, also drops her act, luring them into her trap. Like the boogie man, she frightens her captors and makes sure they never harass a woman again.
Sadly, the woman’s work never seems to be done. The men continuously use their ruse of chivalry to attempt to get what they want. After each conquest, the woman creates another mark in her battered notebook- another notch on the never-ending list of “nice” guys who aren’t really nice. The first act of Promising Young Woman sets depressing precedence. Are there any outstanding men out there? The question seems a bit melodramatic, but Emerald Fennel‘s critically acclaimed yet polarizing feature Promising Young Woman gives a hard dose of reality with a little serving of revenge fantasy.
Following the rape of her friend Nina, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) acts as a vigilante, targeting the city’s sexual predators. One by one, she picks them off, but she’s waiting for the big one, the mysterious Al Monroe. While Nina faced hardship following her rape, Al hadn’t an ounce of remorse and moved on with his life, and became a beloved doctor in the community. For the majority of the film, Al is merely mentioned, left to the audience’s imagination. Oddly enough, Nina isn’t shown either. Although a major aspect of the film, she remains offscreen, her ghost haunting Cassie’s every move.
While most of Promising Young Woman plays out as a satisfying revenge flick, it takes a rom-com turn with the entrance of Ryan (Bo Burnham). Handsome, but not overwhelmingly so, Ryan is a safe and likable guy. He has a great job as a pediatric surgeon. He supports Cassie’s endeavors. He appeases Cassie’s parents. The film features a cutesy sequence with Ryan and Cassie dancing and singing to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind.” For a while, it appears that Cassie has finally found a good man, not like the countless others. Once she gets comfortable, Cassie decides to not only let her guard down but move on from her personal crusade- that is, until a bombshell reignites her quest for vengeance.
Until the film’s final scenes, Nina’s rapist Al Monroe (Chris Lowell), is never shown. Emerald Fennel seems to build him up as this shadowy omnipresent figure throughout the story. During Promising Young Woman’s climax, when he’s finally revealed…It can be best described as underwhelming. Decked out in khakis and pastel polo shirts, all the men in the cabin look exactly the same. Al is slightly off-center, smiling, and having a good time in the midst of a lecherous bachelor party. Al is not some brooding cartoon villain. He is the kind of man we rub elbows with. Small in stature and relatively average, he’s easy to overlook. He could be your friendly coworker, next-door neighbor, or even your family practitioner.
That’s perhaps one of the scariest things about Promising Young Woman. Sexual predators are often your Average Joes, and they’re often the men you’d least expect. Chris Lowell’s boyish good looks and cheerful demeanor inspire a halo effect, and in some cases, pity. In the film’s penultimate scene, Al is even a dimwit and a bit pathetic. Like an overgrown child, he cries over what he’s done…more so because of the fact that his life could be ruined. His reaction is one of a man who’s skated through life without consequences for his terrible actions. There is even a wonder if he’s self-aware. In his mind, has he done anything wrong? No one in his life has told him any different. Or if they have, they’ve been immediately dismissed and silenced.
Even though Al is the main villain of Promising Young Woman, he is only one in an ocean of antagonists. Like so many other men in power, Al is surrounded by enablers and Yes Men to do his bidding. After he strangles Cassie, his friend immediately comes to his aid and reassures him, “It’s not your fault,” and proceeds to help him dispose of the body. While his friend literally helped Al carry out a murder, there is a tangled web of accomplices, including love interest Ryan. In one of the most unexpected performances of the year, Bo Burnham’s turn as the villain is a bit of a shock. Or is it?
For the most part, Ryan seems amiable. Played by the equally charming, all-around real-life nice guy Bo Burnham, Ryan also seems nonthreatening. Even more so than Chris Lowell’s reveal, Bo Burnham’s poses a bigger obstacle. While not Nina’s rapist, Ryan was responsible for filming and spreading the video around. Like Al, he moved on with his life following the incident. At first, he blames his behavior on “being a kid” and attempts to prove to Cassie that he’s not the same person. However, when Cassie threatens Ryan’s career, his disposition immediately changes. At once, the sweet adorkable man who danced in the convenience store and told Cassie he loved her, glowers at her, and in the same breath, calls her a “fucking failure.”
At this moment, we see Ryan’s true colors. Like the montage of men in the beginning, Ryan also wears a nice guy façade.
He shouldn’t have recorded the rape, but he did. He could have reported Al Monroe, but he didn’t. He could have stopped Cassie from going to Al’s bachelor party, but he didn’t. He could have helped the cops when Cassie disappeared. Instead, he lied.
Even worse, Ryan moves on seamlessly, as if he didn’t allow the woman he claimed to love die to protect his image. Although Ryan had shared intimate moments with Cassie, he quickly discarded them (and her) to stand alongside a rapist. In fact, he attends Al’s wedding, thinking he’s going to get off scot-free. Luckily, in this work of fiction, he doesn’t. Unlike Al, who breaks down, Ryan gives a villainous stare into the distance, pissed that he too will face the consequences. In most cases, real life doesn’t see the bad guys get their due. Promising Young Woman at least gives us that.
More than we’d like to believe, there are many Ryans out there. They charm and scheme their way through life and quickly move on from whatever works against their better interest. Men like Ryan actively curate their image in the hopes that they’ll be accepted by society. They don’t want to be reminded that they were complicit in their friends’ crimes. They convince themselves that they didn’t do anything wrong. They believe wholeheartedly, they’re…”nice.”
Going back to Nina’s invisible presence, is it deliberate? Like Al, she is anonymous because she’s the everywoman. She’s a faceless reminder of all the women who never see justice. Unfortunately, Promising Young Woman doesn’t quite deliver the sweet revenge it builds up to. However, it does tear apart the veil that protects the men that are complicit in sexual assault. Yes, it does give rapists their comeuppance but warns us of the many enablers that still exist. It forces us to reckon with the Promising Young Men that shield their boys or the men who lack the self-awareness to realize that they aren’t as nice as they think they are. Or better yet, it holds a mirror to the face of every man that claims to like or even love women but who don’t have an ounce of respect for them. The very same men who have a quiet disdain for the opposite sex, primarily those that threaten their masculinity and challenge their behavior. The thing is, with the “Boys will be boys” and “He was just a kid” mindset, you’ll be left with men who never truly grow up and face responsibility.
Promising Young Woman’s brilliance is that it rips open the foundation of “Nice Guys” who protect each other. It reminds us that for every man that’s ever committed an atrocity towards a woman, there’s always several more who’ve turned a blind eye, or even worse, those who’ve cheered on the assailants. For every Harvey Weinstein, for every Bill Cosby, for every Brock Turner, Aaron David Robinson, and Donald Trump, there are those who sit on the sidelines…and do nothing. While these men may have received some sort of punishment, many monsters of a different breed are still out there. And they’re always a lot closer than you think.