In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a Trojan priestess cursed to tell true prophecies but never be believed. It's appropriate then that Cassie, the protagonist of Emerald Fennell's directorial debut Promising Young Woman, shares her name. Played expertly by Carey Mulligan, Cassie is a 30-year-old med school dropout who lives with her parents. Every weekend she gets all dressed up, heads to a bar, pretends to be hammered and waits. And every weekend some would-be "nice guy" acts the savior to take her safely home only to turn around and try to hook up with her. That's when Cassie snaps out of her drunken trance and gives them a good scare.
Where Cassandra was cursed to never be believed, Cassie's goal is to make sure that every woman who's been assaulted and ultimately not believed is avenged. The premise of Promising Young Woman finds Cassie on a mission: Trap potential predators in order to embarrass, humiliate, and ultimately frighten them enough to never prey on women again. While the film is a fantasy revenge thriller for women everywhere, the ending of the film is a bit more controversial — and is leaving those who have seen it with thoughts. Major spoilers ahead for Promising Young Woman.
As Cassie repeatedly lures men into her trap, we learn why she's taken up this task. Years before, Cassie's best friend and fellow med school classmate Nina was raped at a party that Cassie didn't attend. Cassie dropped out to take care of her, but Nina ultimately committed suicide. Riddled with guilt, Cassie takes revenge into her own hands.
By the middle of the film it seems like Cassie might step away from her double life. She begins dating her former med school classmate and now pediatric surgeon Ryan (Bo Burnham). But once Cassie learns that Nina's assailant has returned from overseas, her temporary relaxation from her revenge side hobby is over. First, she torments a former classmate (Allison Brie) into thinking she was assaulted by a stranger after passing out from too much wine, then tricks the president of her former med school (Connie Britton) into thinking her own daughter might be being taken advantage of. (Part of the movie's genius is that none of its characters are spared, regardless of their gender.)
Major spoilers for Promising Young Woman's ending ahead. Eventually, Cassie learns that Nina's rapist Al (Chris Lowell) is holding a bachelor party at a cabin in the woods and decides to attend pretending to be a stripper. But she also learns that her boyfriend Ryan was present for Nina's rape and appears in the video of it. Cassie holds off on immediate revenge on Ryan — who doesn't attend the bachelor party — letting him stew in fear. Arriving on scene, Cassie serves the rowdy bachelors a laced drink, knocking them all out, then corners Al in a bedroom under the guise of a private lap dance only to handcuff him to the bed. Cassie gives Al an electrifying speech about female autonomy and laments the loss of her dear friend.
It's unclear how exactly Cassie was going to torture Al because she never gets to actually do it. Instead, a handcuff breaks and Al violently attacks Cassie, smothering her to death in an extremely hard-to-watch and triggering murder scene. The next morning, Al's friend Joe (Max Greenfield) helps him burn Cassie's body in the woods. Days later, with the help of some timely video evidence, a remorseful lawyer (Alfred Molina), and some pre-planned text messages, the police descend upon Al's wedding, arresting him for Cassie's murder and pursuing a fleeing Joe. Meanwhile a paranoid Ryan continues getting Cassie's cheeky pre-written texts from beyond the grave, unsure of how his own fate will unspool.
This ending will be polarizing. Jourdain Searles at Bitch writes that, "Promising Young Woman is a fascinating indictment of the way institutions protect predators, but it’s also glaringly simplistic in its navigation of justice and retribution," adding that "Promising Young Woman isn’t a film about beating the system; it’s the pessimistic tale of a martyr who’s willing to sacrifice her body and mind for a small victory." Whereas ScreenRant's Molly Freeman says it won't help audiences, "[feel] better about the world, but Fennell makes sure it is the only ending that makes sense for Cassie, even if it's pessimistic in nature. That's not to say the ending ruins the movie, but it ensures Promising Young Woman will leave all audience members feeling conflicted over Cassie's journey and what they expect from stories about sexual assault and rape."
Still, Brian Tallerico at RogerEbert.com applauds Fennell's swing for the rafters. "I have to admit I thought Fennell had written herself into a corner — it felt like nothing could possibly satisfy Cassie’s emotional arc — but then she pushes right through that corner with a final act that will divide audiences but I admire for its audacity the more I sit with it." Perhaps those conflicting feelings are the point. The movie's finale is definitely going to have its champions and its naysayers. But in the end, Promising Young Woman is worth the conversation.