Warning: Major spoilers ahead.
Does Cassie Thomas, the floral-print femme fatale played by Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman, want to die? The first time I saw the film, a full year ago now at Sundance, I didn’t think so. When I rewatched it recently, though, I found myself less certain. Cassie definitely doesn’t seem to expect harm from the predatory softboys she trolls for in bars, at least not beyond what she’s willing to allow. She may turn her body into a target, playing at being insensate in order to see who takes advantage, but she’s always in control in the scenes in which she lolls faux-drunkenly while an Adam Brody or a Christopher Mintz-Plasse tries to maneuver her out of her clothes. An abrupt snap to sobriety stops any assault in its tracks, a bleak fancy that the movie allows because its focus is on a particular type of rapist: the self-described nice guy who would never resort to force, but who has no issue having sex with someone too wasted to keep her eyes open, much less give consent. Promising Young Woman teases its protagonist as a vengeful murderess on her way home from the first of these encounters, camera gliding past a red drip down her leg as she walks barefoot in the dawn — only to reveal the liquid to be ketchup from a late night snack. The punishment Cassie prefers is that of forcing the men who seek her out to actually see themselves, if only for a moment.
But then there’s the scene in which Cassie takes a tire iron to the car of a guy yelling at her for stopping too long at an intersection, and there’s no calculation to her actions, no grand plan — she’s just a woman daring a bigger, stronger stranger to answer her explosive rage with his own. And there’s the ending, that spectacularly uneasy ending, in which Cassie heads off for a date with destiny at the bachelor party for Al Monroe (Chris Lowell), the med-school classmate who once raped her blackout-drunk best friend Nina in front of a jeering audience, then went on to have an illustrious career while Nina dropped out and killed herself. It’s in that cabin, the other attendees passed out downstairs, where Cassie finds what she may or may not have been looking for this whole time: a man who does her the kind of harm that amounts to consequences he can’t escape. Al may not be willing to admit to what he did to Nina, but he turns out to be willing to smother Cassie in a panic to keep the information from coming to light. Cassie screams and kicks her legs in white tights throughout the agonizingly long sequence, fighting like someone who wants to live. Still, she was fully prepared to die, scheduling text messages and leaving evidence in the event of her disappearance. And when she parks outside the party, ready to bluff her way inside by posing as a stripper, she takes the plates off her car and hurls them into the woods with a terrible finality, the gesture of someone who’ll figure out her getaway only if it comes up.
There are a million more pressing COVID what-ifs in this universe, but the one I’ve been thinking about lately is the one in which Promising Young Woman opened in theaters as originally planned, in April, less than two months before I May Destroy You had its premiere on HBO. Emerald Fennell’s film is heightened and darkly comic while Michaela Coel’s series is personal and chaotically empathetic, but they’re both post–Me Too works that try to get at the same idea of how to reckon with the reality of rape culture. They’re about women whose lives are disrupted by incidents of sexual violence, a secondhand nightmare in Cassie’s case, and direct for Coel’s character Arabella, who’s drugged and assaulted at a bar, an experience that remains frustratingly out of focus in her memory. But they are, more urgently, about what happens next, and about righteous anger as powerful but ultimately debilitating to live with — something that can crush a person as effectively as trauma can. If Promising Young Woman and I May Destroy You had come out in close proximity, as had been originally planned, they might have looked like they were in serendipitous conversation.
They also might have looked like they were engaged in a debate, with the brilliantly discursive finale of Coel’s series serving as a gentle retort to Fennell’s film, which careens its heroine toward an act of self-immolation in order to find justice for her dead friend. Both of these works are about the struggle to find a way forward — emotionally, but also narratively, because what is a satisfying conclusion to an experience that’s simultaneously mundane and world-destroying, to a horror we were told was unexceptional and to be accepted until, abruptly, everyone changed their minds? Nina is the one who initially dies in Promising Young Woman, but Cassie’s life ends early in its own way; she exists in a kind of girlish stasis, stalled out in her coffee-shop job, forgetting her own 30th birthday, living in her childhood bedroom while her parents hover in loving concern. What she seems to want is to turn back time and save her friend, or, barring that, to have everyone admit to their complicity and guilt in her death, and to apologize. And yet, when she comes across someone who’s willing and ready to do that — a depressive defense attorney, played by Alfred Molina, who used to specialize in defending young men accused of rape — she’s at a loss, moved and subdued, but also drained of direction.
Rage can be a sanctuary, and it can also be a dead end. In I May Destroy You, Arabella publicly decries the publishing-house employee who took off a condom without her consent during sex, and has a brief flirtation with being a wrathful voice on the internet, speaking truth to power and basking in the addictive nature of the affirmations and agreements that follow. She looks lost as she wobbles through the streets in a demonic Halloween outfit, calling out her friend’s behavior in real life and the patriarchy on social media. It’s a scaled-down version of the feeling Cassie chases in her weekly ritual in her own set of costumes, picking at the same scab over and over again, reopening an old wound in order to be reminded that she is correct in her resentment. And yet, when I May Destroy You comes to a close, revenge is the first of the scenarios Coel considers and then discards as her character, and her series, searches for an ending. Arabella, after nights of looking, sees her attacker, David (Lewis Reeves) at the bar where she was assaulted, and finally remembers what happened that evening. She lets him buy her a drink, and lets him believe he’s drugged her, and lets him drag her into the bathroom — at which point she pulls a Cassie, revealing she’s fully cognizant of what he’s trying to do.
Arabella and her friends go further, stabbing the guy with a syringe of his own drugs, and follow him staggering down the street, and attempting a sexual humiliation, and then beating and strangling him, in an echo of Promising Young Woman’s final act of violence. Then everything stops, because Arabella, who’s been writing what’s onscreen all along, understands that there’s no closure that way — if that’s even what she’s looking for. Time rolls back, and in the next go-round, Arabella takes enough cocaine to counter the roofies and confronts David in the bathroom alone, leading him to sob out apologies and talk about his own dark past, and about damaged people doing damage. It’s reminiscent of the scene with Molina in Promising Young Woman, the two of them arriving at some impossible, and unearned, point of understanding. It’s another impasse, this humanizing of her rapist, and so Arabella takes the story back one last time, rewriting her encounter with David into one in which she has agency to approach him, to penetrate him, to take pleasure from him, and decide when he can go. She turns him into a character who passes through her narrative, as opposed to one who derails it, having decided that she is the one who will have to move past her trauma, or hold fast to it forever.
Holding fast is what Cassie does, having explored the other options Arabella does, and having also found them lacking. There is a moment in Promising Young Woman when, having found love, despite her many defenses, with another former classmate named Ryan (Bo Burnham), Cassie seems to be moving on. She starts thinking about the future, and takes steps toward becoming the person she used to be before heartbreak and guilt broke her. But like a muted-pastel Orpheus, she can’t resist looking back, and when she revisits that old pain one last time by watching a cell-phone video of Nina’s rape, what she sees cuts short any chance of her having a normal life. Promising Young Woman doesn’t opt to complicate its ending by having Ryan admit to his part on the sidelines in Nina’s death — like all the other “nice guys” in Cassie’s life, he immediately drops into a defense crouch, affirming everything she’s come to believe about the world. I wish it did, though — I wish it had let its heroine’s final decisions feel a little less straightforward, and a little less supported by the world it creates. I May Destroy You embraces a radical, revolutionary empathy in its finale that may be more aspirational than replicable for most of us, but it presents a way of imagining life after trauma, and of releasing rage as an act of self-care, rather than weakness or forgiveness.
What Promising Young Woman opts for is something much grimmer, with Cassie crowing from beyond her unmarked grave as consequences finally come calling on the men who ruined others and then moved on. She may come out on top in that incendiary, uncomfortable ending, her triumph broadcast with a posthumous smiley emoji. But righteousness is cold comfort when you’re dead.