No Country for Any Men

“Promising Young Woman,” Emerald Fennell’s dark revenge fantasy, raises deep questions about sexual assault and justice.,

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No Country for Any Men

“Promising Young Woman,” Emerald Fennell’s dark revenge fantasy, raises deep questions about sexual assault and justice.

Thursday, April 1st, 2021

jenna wortham

Now, Wesley, you know I’m someone who doesn’t really believe in spoilers.

wesley morris

I just don’t understand it, but it’s a thing I’ve learned to love about you, yes.

jenna wortham

This is a controversial take. This is a controversial opinion. For most things, it just doesn’t really bother me if I know the outcome. It does not take away from my enjoyment. Actually, in some ways, it reduces my anxiety, especially when movies are high-paced or, thrillers. It just it calms me down to know what’s coming. That said, there are some exceptions to this rule. “Survivor” and “Drag Race.” I don’t want any GD spoilers.

wesley morris

[LAUGHING]

jenna wortham

We going to have some problems, OK? I’m talking Twitter, mostly.

wesley morris

All right.

jenna wortham

So this is all a run-up, all a preface to say that we’re going to do something we both deeply love to do on this podcast, which is dive so deep on a movie that we will have to spoil it. And that movie is the Oscar sugar baby “Promising Young Woman,” written and directed by Emerald Fennell.

wesley morris

Yes, it is nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Picture, Best Actress for Carey Mulligan, who plays the promising young woman of the title — one of the promising young women of the title.

jenna wortham

And you and I cannot stop talking to each other about this movie, which is such a signal for us that we got to work it out in the room.

wesley morris

Yes.

jenna wortham

So just a heads up, look, this movie is dark. This movie is violent. It includes sexual violence. And we’re going to be talking through all of it. And we just want to prepare you for it because we love you and respect you, and only ever want you to have good feelings as you listen to the show. But we hope you’ll join us anyway because it’s going to be a really good conversation.

wesley morris

Yeah, you also do not have to have seen this movie to listen to it. We might even be having this conversation in lieu of your seeing the movie. I recommend you watch it because I think it’s worth watching, but we’re not going to spoil the movie, we’re going to enhance —

jenna wortham

Yes.

wesley morris

— your experience of it.

jenna wortham

Yes, that’s a good way to put it.

wesley morris

I’m Wesley Morris.

jenna wortham

I’m Jenna Wortham.

wesley morris

We are two culture writers for The New York Times.

jenna wortham

And this is Still Processing.

[music]

jenna wortham

The beginning of the movie. A bunch of scumbag dudes hanging out at a bar talking about scamming on girls.

archived recording (speaker 1)

[INAUDIBLE] out to a strip club.

archived recording (speaker 2)

Which we can’t even do anymore.

archived recording (speaker 1)

Exactly. We can’t even —

wesley morris

Yeah, what you’re basically seeing is these suit guys. They’re like consultants or young middle manager types. And they spy on the other side of this bar this woman sort of sprawled out on a banquette, and she looks really in trouble.

jenna wortham

Right.

wesley morris

Her legs are kind of spread open a little bit.

jenna wortham

Her eyes are closed.

wesley morris

Yes, this woman is played by Carey Mulligan. She is trying to figure out what exactly is going on here. She’s just so out of it. She’s drunk or something.

jenna wortham

And she’s slumping over. She’s having a hard time staying upright. And these men, who are essentially portrayed as a pack of sharks, start figuring out who’s going to be the one to try to take her home.

archived recording (jerry)

I’ll go over.

archived recording (guys in suits)

Oh.

jenna wortham

And so Adam Brody’s character says, I’m just going to go check on her.

archived recording (jerry)

To see if she’s OK.

archived recording (guys in suits)

Yeah, no, of course.

jenna wortham

I think the way this movie opens, anyone who has ever gone out to a bar, ever participated in party culture, even happy hour culture, which is so deeply embedded with American work culture, remembers either themselves overindulging or seeing someone who’s overindulged. And it just brings up all these memories of moments when we’ve made not great decisions about our own consumption and overconsumption. So I feel my stomach knotting up when I’m watching this scene, and uncomfortable memories.

wesley morris

He’s asking if it’s OK for her to go back to his house for another drink.

jenna wortham

Yeah.

wesley morris

She’s already really hammered.

archived recording (cassandra)

Do you live alone?

archived recording (jerry)

No, but my roommate’s out of town, so don’t worry.

jenna wortham

So anyway, now they’re kissing. And —

wesley morris

Well, no, no. He’s kissing her. She — her mouth isn’t doing anything. His mouth is doing everything, and her mouth is not moving at all.

jenna wortham

Right. So what we’re watching is someone really press up on the fringes of consent. She’s there. She’s not really awake. She’s not really upright. And this guy is totally taking advantage of the situation. And it feels really gross to watch.

archived recording (jerry)

Oh, yeah.

wesley morris

So now they’re on his bed. And now he’s trying to undress her.

jenna wortham

He’s undressing her.

archived recording (jerry)

Don’t go to sleep.

archived recording (cassandra)

[INAUDIBLE].

wesley morris

He’s pulled down her underwear.

archived recording (jerry)

Gosh, you’re so pretty.

wesley morris

He’s between her legs.

jenna wortham

This is one of the most uncomfortable scenes of the movie.

archived recording (jerry)

Hey, it’s OK. You’re safe. Shh.

archived recording (cassandra)

What are you doing?

wesley morris

What are you doing?

jenna wortham

And now the music heightens up. Her eyes open wide, clear as day. Homegirl is sober it turns out. She sits up, looks him dead in the face, and says, hey —

archived recording (cassandra)

I said, what are you doing?

jenna wortham

Her clear-eyed sobriety is the scariest thing in the world to this man. And he looks up in horror. He’s like, what? And then we get to the title cards.

wesley morris

That is our opening salvo in this movie.

jenna wortham

But we realize that everything we’ve thought about her — all of our initial impressions of her — need to be reevaluated.

wesley morris

Right. And she goes home, she pulls out a notebook, and it’s filled with hundreds of tally marks. And so you realize Adam Brody in this first scene is just the umpteenth dude she has pulled this move on.

jenna wortham

Right.

wesley morris

You also understand that there is something just off about what we’re watching. This is this character’s entire life — targeting guys and obsessively marking them down. And you want to know where it’s going to go next.

jenna wortham

I love the scene where you see the notebook, because she’s in this traditional girly bedroom.

wesley morris

Her girlhood bedroom.

jenna wortham

Yeah, what appears to be her girlhood bedroom. It just becomes very evident and clear that Cassie’s plan to keep teaching these men a lesson — and I guess shocking them into sobriety — is the only thing she cares about. And I really love the subversiveness of the shot, because you just think — I love movies that tell you from the jump exactly what they’re going to be about. And this movie is no country for any man. Like, there’s just no redemption. Hashtag “all men.” You know, there’s a hashtag that’s like, not all men to be redemptive. And not all men are sexist, and rapists, and et cetera, et cetera. And this movie asks the question, well, what if all men, what if all men contain, and all people really do contain the germ, the seed, the possibility to be evil, harmful individuals, right? And this movie kind of raises the question, what if the world Cassie lives, there are no good men? And it’s such a fascinating thought.

wesley morris

Yeah, I feel like this works as a fairy tale. And we’re in a kind of once-upon-a-time realm. And within that fairy tale is this morality question about men and their behavior. And it’s a thriller, as we’re going to discover, with an actual thriller plot. In addition to its being a fairy tale, a morality play and a thriller, it is also just a romantic comedy from 1999 or 2004. And Cassie works in a coffee shop with her best pal, who’s played by Laverne Cox, and her boss, by the way. And in walks one day a person who recognizes Cassie.

jenna wortham

So in walks this dude named Ryan. And Ryan is a former med school classmate. But I also have to talk very quickly about what happens next because he’s trying to hit on her. She has no interest. She’s not trying to mess with him. She’s not trying to engage with him. And he kind of says jokingly, I don’t know, spit in my coffee. She does, hands the cup to him, and he drinks it. Now I don’t know why everybody is not talking about this scene. I was turned on. I was confused. I was horrified. I was aroused. I really was into it.

And I also feel like maybe people know what to do with it, but I just — it felt like such a clear signal to me about the intimacies they’re going to share and that they have shared. And it’s kind of written off as this cheeky, strange — it’s supposed to be this insight, maybe, into how kind of DGAF this woman is. She just has nothing left to give for anybody, no effs to give for anybody. It’s an intimation of just the underbelly that she lives within.

wesley morris

I mean, the thing about that scene is it is also establishing — like, all of the sharp writing in this movie is between these two people. Their conversation is romantic comedy banter polished to a gleam. And Bo Burnham, by the way, is the actor who plays Ryan. And he is very good at just being a kind of perfect man in a romantic comedy sort of way. He’s a seemingly non-threatening good guy. That’s the thing he gives off. And in case you are doubting what a good guy he is, he’s not just any kind of doctor. He’s a surgeon for kids.

jenna wortham

He’s supposed to enter the movie as a foil to Cassie’s worldview that all men are terrible, all men are trash. He kind of functions to me is an N.P.C., like a non-playable character in a video game. He’s just like wallpaper.

wesley morris

But there’s something important about the introduction of this Ryan character. He has a really crucial plot point in his pocket that he needs to give to Cassie, which is that an old med school friend of theirs is back in town. And all these guys were in medical school together — Ryan, this guy Al, Cassie and her best friend, Nina. And when they were there at school together, Nina gets raped at a party while she’s drunk and nobody does anything about it. Law enforcement doesn’t do anything. The school doesn’t do anything. It just gets buried. And Nina is so traumatized that she drops out.

And apparently, Cassie is an extra, extra good friend because she drops out of school to take care of Nina. And the trauma of all of this — the weight of the assault, the fact that nobody does anything about it — is too much for Nina, and she kills herself. And all of this is what sends Cassie off the deep end herself, and on this mission to lure guys in bars in order to shame them to get revenge, not on a specific man, but on the culture of misogyny that both facilitates these assaults, and then helps bury them once they come to light.

And I think that what you’re supposed to glean from the scores and scores of completed tallies is that this is working in some way for her, right? Not working for her, but it is a form of cutting. It’s a form of bulimia. It is like a kind of self-harm. I think she’s trying to fill a hole whose depth she doesn’t know. But I also think that the way this movie works, it’s so tidy that, of course, I’m believing that this is in her mind a successful experiment in —

jenna wortham

Yes.

wesley morris

In therapy, right? Because the movie itself is so tidy, and not a hair is out of place, so to speak, in the way that it operates. The movie is a machine, and it is well-oiled.

jenna wortham

Yeah, I’m thinking on what you said about self-harm. I mean, she’s not really able to process in a way that we would consider healthy. She’s not able to have any kind of emotional sobriety, or healthy intimacy, or healthy coping mechanisms that she’s really invested in this interaction of manipulation and power dynamics.

But I would also say that I think what we’re witnessing is a critique of how little tools there are. We don’t equip women with tools. We don’t equip people with tools of coping and figuring out how to navigate harm, and figuring out where to turn, and feeling supported as they try to deal with unspeakable harm. And for me watching it, it’s really commentary about a lack of infrastructure and support for women like Cassie and Nina who are suffering as survivors.

wesley morris

And so Cassie’s project changes at this point, because this old med school classmate who’s back in town — Al Monroe is his full name. He’s the guy that’s getting married, and he was the guy who also raped Nina. So Cassie goes from targeting these guys in bars, these random strangers in order to teach them a lesson, to targeting the people involved in Nina’s rape and in the cover-up of her rape, including the dean of this medical school, who’s played by —

jenna wortham

Mrs. Coach! F.N.L. forever. Go on.

wesley morris

Yes, Connie Britton is the med school dean. [DOOR CLOSES]

archived recording (dean walker)

Daisy.

archived recording (cassandra)

That’s me.

archived recording (dean walker)

Dean Walker, please sit.

jenna wortham

She really has perfected that polished air of indifference of a school administrator who’s, like, totally unaware of the actual reality of the environment they’re lording over.

archived recording (cassandra)

Maybe you remember Alexander Monroe?

archived recording (dean walker)

Oh, yes, Alexander Monroe. He actually just came back and gave a talk here.

wesley morris

The dean is like, oh, that guy, Al, he’s wonderful. He’s a really great guy.

archived recording (dean walker)

Are you a friend of his?

archived recording (cassandra)

No. So you don’t remember the accusations made against Al Monroe?

jenna wortham

And so Cassie in this moment a girl is bringing up her friend Nina Fisher. And she’s asking the dean, do you remember this incident of reported sexual assault where several men, several of these students —

archived recording (cassandra)

Too drunk to have any idea what was going on.

jenna wortham

— raped and attacked my friend. And she reported it. And the dean’s like, oh, my God. Well, who presided over the case?

archived recording (cassandra)

You. You felt there wasn’t sufficient evidence. You said it was too much of a he said, she said situation.

archived recording (dean walker)

Well, we get accusations like this all the time. One or two a week.

wesley morris

We bury these all the time!

archived recording (dean walker)

Yes, I mean, because what would you have me do? Ruin a young man’s life every time we get an accusation like this?

jenna wortham

This language is really upsetting because the language privileges the experience of the men over the women.

wesley morris

Right.

jenna wortham

Why is there so much support for men like Al Monroe, and not any support for Nina Fisher, who actually is dead.

archived recording (cassandra)

I guess you did the right thing. We have to give these boys the benefit of the doubt. That’s why I know you won’t mind, but three hours ago, I picked your daughter Amber up from school and introduced her to the boys who live in that room now.

archived recording (dean walker)

What?

jenna wortham

So here we’re starting to see how much of a sociopath Cassie is. And this is the part I love the most of this movie for that reason.

wesley morris

This is your favorite scene?

archived recording (cassandra)

But I’m sure they’ll take good care of your daughter.

jenna wortham

Yeah, because Cassie is going to lay out the way that she’s going to enact revenge on the dean, right? She’s going to use her own flawed logic against her.

archived recording (cassandra)

She is really pretty, huh? She looks a lot older than she is.

archived recording (dean walker)

I don’t believe you.

archived recording (cassandra)

I noticed they had a few bottles of vodka in the room, too. But I’m sure they’ll take good care of your daughter. She seemed excited, actually.

wesley morris

Once the dean finds out that Cassie has potentially done something horrible to her daughter —

archived recording

[PHONE VIBRATING]

wesley morris

— the power dynamic totally shifts.

archived recording (dean walker)

She’s a young girl.

archived recording (cassandra)

I wonder if she looks so young to those guys.

wesley morris

And the dean is suddenly frazzled and afraid.

archived recording (dean walker)

Tell me what [EXPLETIVE] room she’s in. Now!

wesley morris

And, by the way, the music starts to come up. The horror music in this movie — there’s two music modes.

jenna wortham

It’s so good.

wesley morris

Music mode number one is soundtrack — mostly pop song soundtrack. And this deep, dark, horror-oriented music.

jenna wortham

It’s also exposing the way society considers some people expendable and others not, right? The dean is deeply concerned about her daughter, even if she’s not super concerned about Cassie or Nina. And she’s exposing the thinness of her logic. And it’s just so delicious. I know we don’t talk about Quentin Tarantino in this house, but it’s so Uma Thurman in the yellow tracksuit showing up with a samurai sword whisking the blood off of it, just ready. Just like, no, I’m here. You are going to deal with me.

wesley morris

That’s a very interesting person to pick because the first person that comes to mind for me is any Glenn Close character from the years 1985 to 1988 or 1990.

jenna wortham

The rabbit in the pot, really? “Fatal Attraction”? Is that where you’re going to go?

wesley morris

Yes, this is a high-minded, inverse morality play on the kind of vengeance that a person like Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction” takes on Michael Douglas, right? She shows up at Michael Douglas’s apartment. When he gets home, she’s there and talking to his wife and his daughters in the house.

jenna wortham

So good.

wesley morris

What you see when Glenn Close enters Michael Douglas’s domestic life, his marriage, essentially, is we’re meant to understand that this woman is falling apart in a way. And what “Promising Young Woman” does is an inverse of that, which is we already know this woman is falling apart. We are watching her build that collapse into a thriller narrative, essentially, that is entirely predicated upon getting revenge for her and her friend.

jenna wortham

I think what I really find to be so fascinating is that the movie is showing us what happens in a community when you won’t acknowledge the violence, and you won’t acknowledge the harm. And I like thinking about community accountability, right? The scene is really about the failure of the institution to protect women — to protect Nina, to protect Cassie, to not follow up and to have no procedures. And it’s also about the feelings, the ways in which the shortcomings of, quote, a criminal justice system or a carceral justice framework fail the people who are supposed to benefit from them, right?

Even if this guy, Al Monroe, had been punished, it would still be insufficient because there’s no — Nina’s still dead, right? Nina’s still been attacked. But it also speaks to the ways in which this community in particular did not wrap around these women. Since last year, I’ve become really invested in reading up on restorative justice and transformational justice practices. And one of the organizations that I’ve been following and paying attention to is the Audre Lord Project. And they talk so much about how attention to moments of violence, especially gendered violence, and these ruptures in community that are caused by harm. They have to be healed in collective action. They have to be healed together. And what we’re witnessing is someone who’s been so ostracized by this event that nobody wants to talk about, or take accountability for, or even acknowledge that she’s essentially already dead. And Cassie has sort of been pushed to the margins of this community and this society. And what’s actually happened is they’ve committed a kind of social murder.

And one of the things that’s not talked enough about for survivors of assault and abuse is the social death they experience, and the ways in which they become persona non grata, because nobody knows how to deal with this. We’re not equipped with the tools. It makes them feel so uncomfortable, and so they’d rather not deal with it. And people just kind of get excommunicated, they get pushed out even farther. And I do think that’s what the movie gets right about how isolating these incidents are. And one of the things I think this movie is really good at capturing is that there actually are many ways to die.

[music]

wesley morris

So we’re going to take a break right now. And when we come back, we’re going to talk about the ways in which “Promising Young Woman” is part of a family of movies that feel like justice has to be served to make us feel good about having gone to the movies to watch injustice.

jenna wortham

So now we’re in the third act of the movie, which is not the final act. Although, you think it might be, but it’s not. It’s the third act of the movie. And now we’re getting a sense of just how far Cassie is willing to go to put the final touches, the finishing acts on this revenge fantasy. We see her going into Al Monroe’s bachelor party. And he is the guy who sexually assaulted her friend, Nina. So I just want to say this again. This is when the movie really takes a turn. It gets really bleak. It gets really violent, very disturbing. And we are going to talk about it for the remainder of the episode. So prepare yourself.

[music – funereal version of “toxic” by britney spears]

wesley morris

And this scene opens with the most funereal version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.”

jenna wortham

I would also classify this as horrorcore. It is so disturbing. It’s not a song to dance to. It’s a song to disembowel somebody to. It’s very, very ominous. She drives her car and parks it, and you realize that she’s on a mission. She’s always on a mission, but you realize that this mission has a different layer to it because when she gets out of the car, she takes off the back license plate. She doesn’t want anybody to be able to identify the plate. So that already tells you she’s engaging in a different way then she has been in the past. The tone is really dark. The mood is really stormy. It’s very ominous. Nothing good is going to happen in this house.

wesley morris

This little sequence right here, I got horror thriller, horror movie chills. So she’s going to make her entrance into this bachelor party.

archived recording (partygoer)

Oh, the doctor’s here. [MEN CHEERING]

jenna wortham

The door opens. No one questions the arrival of this woman who is presumed to be a stripper, a dancer, a performer of some sort. No one is really questioning why she’s there. No one can figure out who hired her, but it’s very much ingrained in the culture that this is the type of person who would appear at this party, so they just accept it.

wesley morris

Yeah.

jenna wortham

She’s dressed in a nurse’s costume — a white nurse’s costume with the thick white tights and these red stiletto heels. And she’s wearing this cotton candy colored short wig. She looks like kind of like a Juggalo, kind of like Harley Quinn.

wesley morris

She looks like Britney Spears.

jenna wortham

Yeah.

wesley morris

She looks like Britney Spears as Harley Quinn.

jenna wortham

And then I kind of love the scene that follows, which is she takes a bottle of warm vodka, which is its own kind of hell, and puts a pour spigot in it. And then it just shows those men just lining up with their mouths open, and she’s just splashing alcohol all over them. And she’s also doing her own a little bit of a striptease. But it’s kind of more about their raw willingness. And in my mind, just how disgusting they are, and how much in control she is in this moment. I kept trying to remember what imagery wanted to surface and what this woman, this sexy woman in a nurse costume was reminiscent of for me. And I finally figured it out a few days ago.

wesley morris

OK.

jenna wortham

It is 100 percent Janine Lindemulder. Do you remember who that is?

wesley morris

No.

jenna wortham

The super, super sexy nurse on the cover of that Blink 182 album and in that video “What’s My Age Again?” Remember that?

wesley morris

Yes.

jenna wortham

Talk about generation-defining. That video came out in 1999. And Janine is also a porn star. And there is something really amazing about seeing this sex worker on MTV and this kind of mainstream embrace. And it felt like the embodiment of that late ’90s super pro-woman, super feminist, pro-sex sex positive, all of that energy that consumed that decade for me. But and obviously as I’ve gotten older, I reflected on it, and I think there was an inherent tension between how much women were allowed to actually have agency over their sex and their sexuality, and how much the culture kind of pushed back, and how much hostility there was towards women that embraced their sexuality.

And it kind of took that as a prompt to really dump on them and let women be as sexy as they want to be, but we’re still going to confine them to our own misogynistic fantasies. We’re still going to reduce them sexually. We’re still going to treat them like shit because, whatever, they’re telling us we can. There was this conflation by male culture that women who were sexually open, and sexually forward — and sex positive, frankly — could be mistreated because of that openness of their sexuality. And I feel so much of that in this scene.

wesley morris

And she takes the bachelor up to the room.

archived recording (cassandra)

Look, I don’t have to do anything if you don’t want me to, but I only get paid if I go upstairs with you.

archived recording (al monroe)

OK.

wesley morris

He really doesn’t want to go, which is really another reversal where he’s sort of encouraged, egged on to go, but really doesn’t want to.

archived recording (al monroe)

So what do I —

archived recording (cassandra)

Get on the bed.

wesley morris

So she has get on the bed up in this master suite.

archived recording (al monroe)

So what’s your name?

archived recording (cassandra)

Candy.

archived recording (al monroe)

I mean your real name.

archived recording (cassandra)

Nina. Nina Fisher.

archived recording (al monroe)

What did you say?

archived recording (cassandra)

I said, my name is Nina Fisher.

wesley morris

And he’s like, this is a joke. I want to get out of here. He’s not comfortable.

jenna wortham

And he starts to call for help. And she’s like, all your friends downstairs, they’re passed out. And so she’s roofied all the guys downstairs with this bottle of — she is also the toxic element in this house. So it’s so full circle to me.

wesley morris

Right. Yeah, again, just utter tidiness. So, interestingly, she keeps the costume on for all of this. But is it a costume? Is it a disguise? I mean, one thing you and I have not talked about, really, because we’ve compared this movie to so many other types of movies and so many genres, but what this really is is a superhero movie, right?

This is the story of a regular person who has a horrible thing happen to them, and the expression of that horrible thing in day-to-day life is as this alter ego. It becomes this other personality. And in this case, this person is like an Avenger, so to speak. And part of that avenging job is to bring justice to Cassandra and to Nina, her friend. And there are costumes involved. And now here she is at the climax getting her arch enemy, this guy Al Monroe.

archived recording (cassandra)

Really, don’t [EXPLETIVE] cry. Tell me what you did.

archived recording (al monroe)

I didn’t do anything wrong, though.

wesley morris

What does he think was right about what he did?

archived recording (al monroe)

I was affected by it, too OK? It’s every guy’s worst nightmare getting accused like that. [LAUGHTER]

jenna wortham

Oh, my god.

wesley morris

That’s not my favorite line in the movie, but he’s writhing, and kicking, and pulling his arms trying to pull himself loose from the bedpost. Now is her chance.

archived recording (cassandra)

I wanted to be a doctor my whole life. But lately, I’ve been feeling like I might want to get back into it.

wesley morris

This is the moment we see her use some medical training to actually perform a little surgery potentially on this dude. She wants to carve Nina’s name onto his body.

archived recording (al monroe)

Help me!

jenna wortham

And as she starts to carve into his leg, he breaks free from the handcuffs and things start to go horribly wrong. And this is the fourth act of the movie. This is the beginning of the fourth act of the movie when you see how far this guy’s willing to go to keep his reputation intact, how they view her disposability. And he puts the pillow over her face, and just starts screaming, shut up. And I remember feeling disbelief when I started watching this scene. They’re not really going to kill her, are they? And they do.

wesley morris

So you get to this scene. There’s all this work done to build up to this moment. To the extent that anything is earned in this movie, I feel like this climax is earned because the mounting tension in this entire movie.

jenna wortham

Right. The most powerful thing and difficult thing about this movie is that it really gives the amount of time. It actually shows you in a visceral way what it would take to kill someone, right? She’s fighting, she won’t stop. A lot of our popular culture and entertainment, they don’t really deal with the actual violence they’re showing. You don’t always see blood. People just get shot and they fall down, or somebody gets their neck sliced and they fall down, or a woman gets killed and it takes two seconds of a three-hour movie. This movie devotes a significant amount of time to the suffocation of this woman. And I think it’s meant to really portray he’s not changing his mind. He is intent on obliterating, destroying —

wesley morris

This is non-negotiable.

jenna wortham

— this body and this person. Yeah, it is a non-negotiable death.

wesley morris

The thing that came to mind while I watched it — and this is a wild thing to say, Jenna, but like I did think about George Floyd. I thought about George Floyd’s death. I thought about the video of his death and the way that affected people. And the fact that you were seeing a living person lose his life without interruption, it’s just a haunting thing that you never forget.

jenna wortham

I think this scene is the fulcrum for me. My excitement about this movie cooled with this scene. And I think it’s really strange to watch a movie about femicide perpetuate that very same thing. And I found it to be so unsettling. And, look, I’m not a filmmaker, but I just think there — I wonder if the point could have been made another way.

wesley morris

Yeah.

jenna wortham

I just don’t know that a piece of activism about gender violence needs to sacrifice a woman to make the point. The satisfaction at different points that I enjoy throughout the movie are completely devoid in this moment and in this decision, and, frankly, for the rest of the film after this point. There’s just no possibility for redemption of this character, Al Monroe.

He is so invested in himself and his livelihood and his reputation that he’s willing to essentially kill another person to preserve himself and save himself. And he can do it with the knowledge that the culture will support him. The culture will rebound around him. Presumably, he thinks the same thing that kept him from being accountable for Nina’s rape is going to keep him from being accountable from this murder.

wesley morris

Yes. And all the stuff that you’re saying about Al is realized the next morning.

archived recording

It was an accident.

archived recording (al monroe)

Of course it was a [EXPLETIVE] accident.

archived recording

Yeah, of course it was a [EXPLETIVE] accident. No one’s going to go to jail because no one’s ever going to find out.

wesley morris

Al, with the help of his best friend — the best friend is doing all the motivating. And they burn her body. They stand over this pyre, basically, of her burning body. And then this MF goes and gets married, and everybody’s there. Ryan even shows up. And during the reception, you hear police sirens. And you know they’re coming for Al. And Cassie has basically orchestrated this whole thing. All this evidence for the police to find to make sure these dudes would be arrested for what happened to Nina, and obviously to her. And just to be sure Ryan knew what she did, she scheduled text messages to him. The phone actually says “scheduled message.” I didn’t even know phones do that. What year is this? But the texts are basically like, “Enjoy the wedding, sweetie, love Cassie and Nina. Emoji.”

To me, what that felt like was the hand beyond the grave that happens in many a horror movie and many a thriller. There’s a moment in “Fatal Attraction” where you think Glenn Close is dead after Michael Douglas chokes her in the bathtub, then she pops up with the knife and, oh! Anne Archer, Michael Douglas’s wife, shoots her. And now she’s really dead. And what happens at the end of “Promising Young Woman” is basically a version of that. It is a hand punching up out of the grave that is essentially, in the case of this movie, meant to restore order and bring justice. And we hear the sirens, and we’re supposed to know that this is over. The cops are going to take these dudes away and arrest them. And all of these dudes who did this horrible thing to her friend Nina, and to her — soon they’ll find that out, too — they’re all going down.

jenna wortham

Right. And so when we’re watching the wedding and we’re watching these dudes in their khaki colored suits, and these elaborate cheese spreads, and floral crowns, and this bougie outdoor setting, you hear the siren of the police. And it’s supposed to fill the viewers with this relief. It does. It works. You’re like, oh, my god. Thank god, right? There’s one side of me that’s like experiencing that relief of, quote, help. And then there’s the other part of me that’s much larger and much more sentient aware that’s like, the police? What are the police going to do? The police ain’t shit. And I was like, well, that’s also how you know this movie is made by white people, because I don’t know anybody who hears the arrival of police sirens and experiences the feeling of relief.

But the idea that somehow this is the solution to all the problems, and this is the thing, it’s like, again, for all the ways the movie is thinking beyond the box and thinking in these really inventive, new, strange ways, it’s still — it settles on a solution that is so disappointing and so unsatisfactory. And it works as a movie. But I think, yeah, as you were saying, it was like a morality fable. It’s really disappointing because that’s just not a solution. And the solution cannot involve carnage and casualties and half burnt bodies.

wesley morris

Right. Yeah.

jenna wortham

Who’s to say that if these guys go to jail, they won’t be able to hire lawyers that get them off? They are supported and protected by an infrastructure that over and over and over again, even throughout the course of this movie, has shown up, and protected them, and kept them out of harm’s way. So why are we meant to believe now, in this final act of the film, that justice has been served?

wesley morris

Well, I keep coming back to this word tidy, right? We are a culture that really, really likes happy endings. We want to know that we got our money’s worth. And the way we know we got it is that we leave the theater not just emotionally happy, but with a sense of closure. With the sense of closure that a movie can provide that most victims of sexual assault never receive.

jenna wortham

Right.

wesley morris

Right?

jenna wortham

Right.

wesley morris

And so this movie is kind of operating at cross purposes in some ways, right? And the movie wants to be the justice while also acknowledging the appalling lack of it, right? The fact that by the end of the movie, you still have two dead women who are dead because of a culture of sexual assault.

So the other movie that came up while I was watching “Promising Young Woman” again is “Thelma & Louise.” That movie is essentially the story of a rape survivor, and, perhaps, the survivor of more than a rape. And she tries to go away for the weekend with her best friend, Thelma. And on the first night of this little mini vacation, Thelma is almost raped. And so Louise, who is the rape survivor, shoots the guy dead. Just kills him. And the two of them spend the rest of the movie on the run, but also discover that being on this journey has kind of transformed them into these powerful, badass outlaw justice warriors. And that movie, too, ends in a kind of clash of sirens and free will, and this question of, what is justice going to look like for the two of us?

jenna wortham

Yeah.

wesley morris

Rather than surrender to Harvey Keitel, who is the exponent of the Arkansas state police or the F.B.I., they decide, you know what? We had it real good. And whatever we’re about to turn around and go surrender ourselves to is going to be a whole hell of a lot worse than driving this Thunderbird off a cliff. So what do they do? They drive the car off a cliff. And while they do it, their hands are clasped. They give each other a big kiss before they drive. And the shot of the car flying into the canyon is freeze framed, and there’s a fade to white, and the credits roll.

jenna wortham

Yes. And as the unofficial president of the Susan Sarandon and Gina Davis fan club, I was way too young to see that movie when it came out, but I’ve since watched it several times over the last couple of years. And, yes, they do share some lineage and there is some D.N.A. in there, but the ending of “Thelma & Louise” is satisfying, even though you kind of assume they die because they drive off of a cliff. But the film doesn’t show it.

The film in that freeze frame offers a futurity that we can’t imagine, or we can’t see. And you sort of have to trust their vision for it. And I just think in “Promising Young Woman,” the directorial choices don’t allow you such an easy escape, which I guess is the point. But in “Thelma & Louise,” there’s something really incredible about these two women having gone through this traumatic experience together and deciding how they’re going to exit it together. They don’t rely on the police. They choose something else. They choose something transformative. And even if that thing ends up being death, which we don’t really know, it still feels more at their hands versus at the hands of the state or any more bad men.

wesley morris

Right.

jenna wortham

And “Promising Young Woman” only assumes the outcome is death and jail. You and I are really trying to take stock of a post-2020 landscape. And we’re trying to take stock of a moment in time when we have challenged our assumptions about the world we live in and the institutions, and really aggressively acknowledging that the status quo does not work. And “Promising Young Woman” still relies on the status quo. There’s just no nuance and outcome for these women, for these men.

And “Thelma & Louise” is a great movie to bring in as a companion. People should watch that alongside this movie as well. And if they have the stomach for it, watch “I May Destroy You,” which is Michaela Coel’s show that aired on HBO last year as well about a woman surviving the aftermath of sexual assault. And similarly, it is unsparing about the sheer violence that happens when someone crosses a line, right? When someone crosses a boundary and when assaults happen. But the difference between a show like “I May Destroy You” is that Michaela Coel’s character was able to start walking towards healing, and start walking towards a resolution that did not enact any more violence or harm on her precious body. And I think for a show that really disturbed me in the same way that “Promising Young Woman” disturbed me — I had to take breaks, I had to take pauses. But I felt like I was watching an artist, and I was watching a very angry young woman figure out more violence is not the answer. And I’ve become really invested in transformative justice. And there’s a great post outlining what T.J. is by Mia Mingus, who’s a disability justice advocate and a T.J, worker that lays out what it actually means to seek justice while still reducing harm, right? And, actually, if you think about it, that’s such a radical idea.

wesley morris

Yeah.

jenna wortham

So much of American popular culture and film and TV is a fantasy that the police will save us. And those quintessential sirens that you hear at the end of “Promising Young Woman,” that’s something that’s been used over and over and over again to signal that the police equal safety. And this year is one of the years that we really are having a national conversation about how untrue that is for so many of us, including white women. It’s not just the most oppressed. It’s actually true. And I think that’s why we’re seeing these incredible protests right now happening in the U.K. over the killing of Sarah Everett, who was killed by a police officer, right? That narrative is being reinforced, and people are actually talking about it, again, at this international level, which is really incredible.

And maybe that’s why “Promising Young Woman” feels so disappointing to me, because it just — it acts like the state is the solution when we’re coming into such a deeper knowing of how they perpetuate all the problems. And what we see happening in “I May Destroy You” is an examination of the conditions that led to that violence. And her active participation and disrupting that cycle shows us an outlet for ending it, right? And in the process, we see an outcome for this very promising young woman that does not involve death.

[music]

That’s our show, friends. Still Processing is produced at The New York Times by Elyssa Dudley.

wesley morris

Our editors are Sara Sarasohn and Sasha Weiss.

jenna wortham

Marion Lozano mixes the show.

wesley morris

And special Thanks to Lisa Tobin and Wendy Dorr.

jenna wortham

Our theme music is by Kindness. It is called “World We Start” from the album “Otherness.” And if you want more information about the things we mentioned in this episode, all those links live at nytimes.com/stillprocessing.

[music]

No Country for Any Men

“Promising Young Woman,” Emerald Fennell’s dark revenge fantasy, raises deep questions about sexual assault and justice.

transcript

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transcript

No Country for Any Men

“Promising Young Woman,” Emerald Fennell’s dark revenge fantasy, raises deep questions about sexual assault and justice.

Thursday, April 1st, 2021

jenna wortham

Now, Wesley, you know I’m someone who doesn’t really believe in spoilers.

wesley morris

I just don’t understand it, but it’s a thing I’ve learned to love about you, yes.

jenna wortham

This is a controversial take. This is a controversial opinion. For most things, it just doesn’t really bother me if I know the outcome. It does not take away from my enjoyment. Actually, in some ways, it reduces my anxiety, especially when movies are high-paced or, thrillers. It just it calms me down to know what’s coming. That said, there are some exceptions to this rule. “Survivor” and “Drag Race.” I don’t want any GD spoilers.

wesley morris

[LAUGHING]

jenna wortham

We going to have some problems, OK? I’m talking Twitter, mostly.

wesley morris

All right.

jenna wortham

So this is all a run-up, all a preface to say that we’re going to do something we both deeply love to do on this podcast, which is dive so deep on a movie that we will have to spoil it. And that movie is the Oscar sugar baby “Promising Young Woman,” written and directed by Emerald Fennell.

wesley morris

Yes, it is nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Picture, Best Actress for Carey Mulligan, who plays the promising young woman of the title — one of the promising young women of the title.

jenna wortham

And you and I cannot stop talking to each other about this movie, which is such a signal for us that we got to work it out in the room.

wesley morris

Yes.

jenna wortham

So just a heads up, look, this movie is dark. This movie is violent. It includes sexual violence. And we’re going to be talking through all of it. And we just want to prepare you for it because we love you and respect you, and only ever want you to have good feelings as you listen to the show. But we hope you’ll join us anyway because it’s going to be a really good conversation.

wesley morris

Yeah, you also do not have to have seen this movie to listen to it. We might even be having this conversation in lieu of your seeing the movie. I recommend you watch it because I think it’s worth watching, but we’re not going to spoil the movie, we’re going to enhance —

jenna wortham

Yes.

wesley morris

— your experience of it.

jenna wortham

Yes, that’s a good way to put it.

wesley morris

I’m Wesley Morris.

jenna wortham

I’m Jenna Wortham.

wesley morris

We are two culture writers for The New York Times.

jenna wortham

And this is Still Processing.

[music]

jenna wortham

The beginning of the movie. A bunch of scumbag dudes hanging out at a bar talking about scamming on girls.

archived recording (speaker 1)

[INAUDIBLE] out to a strip club.

archived recording (speaker 2)

Which we can’t even do anymore.

archived recording (speaker 1)

Exactly. We can’t even —

wesley morris

Yeah, what you’re basically seeing is these suit guys. They’re like consultants or young middle manager types. And they spy on the other side of this bar this woman sort of sprawled out on a banquette, and she looks really in trouble.

jenna wortham

Right.

wesley morris

Her legs are kind of spread open a little bit.

jenna wortham

Her eyes are closed.

wesley morris

Yes, this woman is played by Carey Mulligan. She is trying to figure out what exactly is going on here. She’s just so out of it. She’s drunk or something.

jenna wortham

And she’s slumping over. She’s having a hard time staying upright. And these men, who are essentially portrayed as a pack of sharks, start figuring out who’s going to be the one to try to take her home.

archived recording (jerry)

I’ll go over.

archived recording (guys in suits)

Oh.

jenna wortham

And so Adam Brody’s character says, I’m just going to go check on her.

archived recording (jerry)

To see if she’s OK.

archived recording (guys in suits)

Yeah, no, of course.

jenna wortham

I think the way this movie opens, anyone who has ever gone out to a bar, ever participated in party culture, even happy hour culture, which is so deeply embedded with American work culture, remembers either themselves overindulging or seeing someone who’s overindulged. And it just brings up all these memories of moments when we’ve made not great decisions about our own consumption and overconsumption. So I feel my stomach knotting up when I’m watching this scene, and uncomfortable memories.

wesley morris

He’s asking if it’s OK for her to go back to his house for another drink.

jenna wortham

Yeah.

wesley morris

She’s already really hammered.

archived recording (cassandra)

Do you live alone?

archived recording (jerry)

No, but my roommate’s out of town, so don’t worry.

jenna wortham

So anyway, now they’re kissing. And —

wesley morris

Well, no, no. He’s kissing her. She — her mouth isn’t doing anything. His mouth is doing everything, and her mouth is not moving at all.

jenna wortham

Right. So what we’re watching is someone really press up on the fringes of consent. She’s there. She’s not really awake. She’s not really upright. And this guy is totally taking advantage of the situation. And it feels really gross to watch.

archived recording (jerry)

Oh, yeah.

wesley morris

So now they’re on his bed. And now he’s trying to undress her.

jenna wortham

He’s undressing her.

archived recording (jerry)

Don’t go to sleep.

archived recording (cassandra)

[INAUDIBLE].

wesley morris

He’s pulled down her underwear.

archived recording (jerry)

Gosh, you’re so pretty.

wesley morris

He’s between her legs.

jenna wortham

This is one of the most uncomfortable scenes of the movie.

archived recording (jerry)

Hey, it’s OK. You’re safe. Shh.

archived recording (cassandra)

What are you doing?

wesley morris

What are you doing?

jenna wortham

And now the music heightens up. Her eyes open wide, clear as day. Homegirl is sober it turns out. She sits up, looks him dead in the face, and says, hey —

archived recording (cassandra)

I said, what are you doing?

jenna wortham

Her clear-eyed sobriety is the scariest thing in the world to this man. And he looks up in horror. He’s like, what? And then we get to the title cards.

wesley morris

That is our opening salvo in this movie.

jenna wortham

But we realize that everything we’ve thought about her — all of our initial impressions of her — need to be reevaluated.

wesley morris

Right. And she goes home, she pulls out a notebook, and it’s filled with hundreds of tally marks. And so you realize Adam Brody in this first scene is just the umpteenth dude she has pulled this move on.

jenna wortham

Right.

wesley morris

You also understand that there is something just off about what we’re watching. This is this character’s entire life — targeting guys and obsessively marking them down. And you want to know where it’s going to go next.

jenna wortham

I love the scene where you see the notebook, because she’s in this traditional girly bedroom.

wesley morris

Her girlhood bedroom.

jenna wortham

Yeah, what appears to be her girlhood bedroom. It just becomes very evident and clear that Cassie’s plan to keep teaching these men a lesson — and I guess shocking them into sobriety — is the only thing she cares about. And I really love the subversiveness of the shot, because you just think — I love movies that tell you from the jump exactly what they’re going to be about. And this movie is no country for any man. Like, there’s just no redemption. Hashtag “all men.” You know, there’s a hashtag that’s like, not all men to be redemptive. And not all men are sexist, and rapists, and et cetera, et cetera. And this movie asks the question, well, what if all men, what if all men contain, and all people really do contain the germ, the seed, the possibility to be evil, harmful individuals, right? And this movie kind of raises the question, what if the world Cassie lives, there are no good men? And it’s such a fascinating thought.

wesley morris

Yeah, I feel like this works as a fairy tale. And we’re in a kind of once-upon-a-time realm. And within that fairy tale is this morality question about men and their behavior. And it’s a thriller, as we’re going to discover, with an actual thriller plot. In addition to its being a fairy tale, a morality play and a thriller, it is also just a romantic comedy from 1999 or 2004. And Cassie works in a coffee shop with her best pal, who’s played by Laverne Cox, and her boss, by the way. And in walks one day a person who recognizes Cassie.

jenna wortham

So in walks this dude named Ryan. And Ryan is a former med school classmate. But I also have to talk very quickly about what happens next because he’s trying to hit on her. She has no interest. She’s not trying to mess with him. She’s not trying to engage with him. And he kind of says jokingly, I don’t know, spit in my coffee. She does, hands the cup to him, and he drinks it. Now I don’t know why everybody is not talking about this scene. I was turned on. I was confused. I was horrified. I was aroused. I really was into it.

And I also feel like maybe people know what to do with it, but I just — it felt like such a clear signal to me about the intimacies they’re going to share and that they have shared. And it’s kind of written off as this cheeky, strange — it’s supposed to be this insight, maybe, into how kind of DGAF this woman is. She just has nothing left to give for anybody, no effs to give for anybody. It’s an intimation of just the underbelly that she lives within.

wesley morris

I mean, the thing about that scene is it is also establishing — like, all of the sharp writing in this movie is between these two people. Their conversation is romantic comedy banter polished to a gleam. And Bo Burnham, by the way, is the actor who plays Ryan. And he is very good at just being a kind of perfect man in a romantic comedy sort of way. He’s a seemingly non-threatening good guy. That’s the thing he gives off. And in case you are doubting what a good guy he is, he’s not just any kind of doctor. He’s a surgeon for kids.

jenna wortham

He’s supposed to enter the movie as a foil to Cassie’s worldview that all men are terrible, all men are trash. He kind of functions to me is an N.P.C., like a non-playable character in a video game. He’s just like wallpaper.

wesley morris

But there’s something important about the introduction of this Ryan character. He has a really crucial plot point in his pocket that he needs to give to Cassie, which is that an old med school friend of theirs is back in town. And all these guys were in medical school together — Ryan, this guy Al, Cassie and her best friend, Nina. And when they were there at school together, Nina gets raped at a party while she’s drunk and nobody does anything about it. Law enforcement doesn’t do anything. The school doesn’t do anything. It just gets buried. And Nina is so traumatized that she drops out.

And apparently, Cassie is an extra, extra good friend because she drops out of school to take care of Nina. And the trauma of all of this — the weight of the assault, the fact that nobody does anything about it — is too much for Nina, and she kills herself. And all of this is what sends Cassie off the deep end herself, and on this mission to lure guys in bars in order to shame them to get revenge, not on a specific man, but on the culture of misogyny that both facilitates these assaults, and then helps bury them once they come to light.

And I think that what you’re supposed to glean from the scores and scores of completed tallies is that this is working in some way for her, right? Not working for her, but it is a form of cutting. It’s a form of bulimia. It is like a kind of self-harm. I think she’s trying to fill a hole whose depth she doesn’t know. But I also think that the way this movie works, it’s so tidy that, of course, I’m believing that this is in her mind a successful experiment in —

jenna wortham

Yes.

wesley morris

In therapy, right? Because the movie itself is so tidy, and not a hair is out of place, so to speak, in the way that it operates. The movie is a machine, and it is well-oiled.

jenna wortham

Yeah, I’m thinking on what you said about self-harm. I mean, she’s not really able to process in a way that we would consider healthy. She’s not able to have any kind of emotional sobriety, or healthy intimacy, or healthy coping mechanisms that she’s really invested in this interaction of manipulation and power dynamics.

But I would also say that I think what we’re witnessing is a critique of how little tools there are. We don’t equip women with tools. We don’t equip people with tools of coping and figuring out how to navigate harm, and figuring out where to turn, and feeling supported as they try to deal with unspeakable harm. And for me watching it, it’s really commentary about a lack of infrastructure and support for women like Cassie and Nina who are suffering as survivors.

wesley morris

And so Cassie’s project changes at this point, because this old med school classmate who’s back in town — Al Monroe is his full name. He’s the guy that’s getting married, and he was the guy who also raped Nina. So Cassie goes from targeting these guys in bars, these random strangers in order to teach them a lesson, to targeting the people involved in Nina’s rape and in the cover-up of her rape, including the dean of this medical school, who’s played by —

jenna wortham

Mrs. Coach! F.N.L. forever. Go on.

wesley morris

Yes, Connie Britton is the med school dean. [DOOR CLOSES]

archived recording (dean walker)

Daisy.

archived recording (cassandra)

That’s me.

archived recording (dean walker)

Dean Walker, please sit.

jenna wortham

She really has perfected that polished air of indifference of a school administrator who’s, like, totally unaware of the actual reality of the environment they’re lording over.

archived recording (cassandra)

Maybe you remember Alexander Monroe?

archived recording (dean walker)

Oh, yes, Alexander Monroe. He actually just came back and gave a talk here.

wesley morris

The dean is like, oh, that guy, Al, he’s wonderful. He’s a really great guy.

archived recording (dean walker)

Are you a friend of his?

archived recording (cassandra)

No. So you don’t remember the accusations made against Al Monroe?

jenna wortham

And so Cassie in this moment a girl is bringing up her friend Nina Fisher. And she’s asking the dean, do you remember this incident of reported sexual assault where several men, several of these students —

archived recording (cassandra)

Too drunk to have any idea what was going on.

jenna wortham

— raped and attacked my friend. And she reported it. And the dean’s like, oh, my God. Well, who presided over the case?

archived recording (cassandra)

You. You felt there wasn’t sufficient evidence. You said it was too much of a he said, she said situation.

archived recording (dean walker)

Well, we get accusations like this all the time. One or two a week.

wesley morris

We bury these all the time!

archived recording (dean walker)

Yes, I mean, because what would you have me do? Ruin a young man’s life every time we get an accusation like this?

jenna wortham

This language is really upsetting because the language privileges the experience of the men over the women.

wesley morris

Right.

jenna wortham

Why is there so much support for men like Al Monroe, and not any support for Nina Fisher, who actually is dead.

archived recording (cassandra)

I guess you did the right thing. We have to give these boys the benefit of the doubt. That’s why I know you won’t mind, but three hours ago, I picked your daughter Amber up from school and introduced her to the boys who live in that room now.

archived recording (dean walker)

What?

jenna wortham

So here we’re starting to see how much of a sociopath Cassie is. And this is the part I love the most of this movie for that reason.

wesley morris

This is your favorite scene?

archived recording (cassandra)

But I’m sure they’ll take good care of your daughter.

jenna wortham

Yeah, because Cassie is going to lay out the way that she’s going to enact revenge on the dean, right? She’s going to use her own flawed logic against her.

archived recording (cassandra)

She is really pretty, huh? She looks a lot older than she is.

archived recording (dean walker)

I don’t believe you.

archived recording (cassandra)

I noticed they had a few bottles of vodka in the room, too. But I’m sure they’ll take good care of your daughter. She seemed excited, actually.

wesley morris

Once the dean finds out that Cassie has potentially done something horrible to her daughter —

archived recording

[PHONE VIBRATING]

wesley morris

— the power dynamic totally shifts.

archived recording (dean walker)

She’s a young girl.

archived recording (cassandra)

I wonder if she looks so young to those guys.

wesley morris

And the dean is suddenly frazzled and afraid.

archived recording (dean walker)

Tell me what [EXPLETIVE] room she’s in. Now!

wesley morris

And, by the way, the music starts to come up. The horror music in this movie — there’s two music modes.

jenna wortham

It’s so good.

wesley morris

Music mode number one is soundtrack — mostly pop song soundtrack. And this deep, dark, horror-oriented music.

jenna wortham

It’s also exposing the way society considers some people expendable and others not, right? The dean is deeply concerned about her daughter, even if she’s not super concerned about Cassie or Nina. And she’s exposing the thinness of her logic. And it’s just so delicious. I know we don’t talk about Quentin Tarantino in this house, but it’s so Uma Thurman in the yellow tracksuit showing up with a samurai sword whisking the blood off of it, just ready. Just like, no, I’m here. You are going to deal with me.

wesley morris

That’s a very interesting person to pick because the first person that comes to mind for me is any Glenn Close character from the years 1985 to 1988 or 1990.

jenna wortham

The rabbit in the pot, really? “Fatal Attraction”? Is that where you’re going to go?

wesley morris

Yes, this is a high-minded, inverse morality play on the kind of vengeance that a person like Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction” takes on Michael Douglas, right? She shows up at Michael Douglas’s apartment. When he gets home, she’s there and talking to his wife and his daughters in the house.

jenna wortham

So good.

wesley morris

What you see when Glenn Close enters Michael Douglas’s domestic life, his marriage, essentially, is we’re meant to understand that this woman is falling apart in a way. And what “Promising Young Woman” does is an inverse of that, which is we already know this woman is falling apart. We are watching her build that collapse into a thriller narrative, essentially, that is entirely predicated upon getting revenge for her and her friend.

jenna wortham

I think what I really find to be so fascinating is that the movie is showing us what happens in a community when you won’t acknowledge the violence, and you won’t acknowledge the harm. And I like thinking about community accountability, right? The scene is really about the failure of the institution to protect women — to protect Nina, to protect Cassie, to not follow up and to have no procedures. And it’s also about the feelings, the ways in which the shortcomings of, quote, a criminal justice system or a carceral justice framework fail the people who are supposed to benefit from them, right?

Even if this guy, Al Monroe, had been punished, it would still be insufficient because there’s no — Nina’s still dead, right? Nina’s still been attacked. But it also speaks to the ways in which this community in particular did not wrap around these women. Since last year, I’ve become really invested in reading up on restorative justice and transformational justice practices. And one of the organizations that I’ve been following and paying attention to is the Audre Lord Project. And they talk so much about how attention to moments of violence, especially gendered violence, and these ruptures in community that are caused by harm. They have to be healed in collective action. They have to be healed together. And what we’re witnessing is someone who’s been so ostracized by this event that nobody wants to talk about, or take accountability for, or even acknowledge that she’s essentially already dead. And Cassie has sort of been pushed to the margins of this community and this society. And what’s actually happened is they’ve committed a kind of social murder.

And one of the things that’s not talked enough about for survivors of assault and abuse is the social death they experience, and the ways in which they become persona non grata, because nobody knows how to deal with this. We’re not equipped with the tools. It makes them feel so uncomfortable, and so they’d rather not deal with it. And people just kind of get excommunicated, they get pushed out even farther. And I do think that’s what the movie gets right about how isolating these incidents are. And one of the things I think this movie is really good at capturing is that there actually are many ways to die.

[music]

wesley morris

So we’re going to take a break right now. And when we come back, we’re going to talk about the ways in which “Promising Young Woman” is part of a family of movies that feel like justice has to be served to make us feel good about having gone to the movies to watch injustice.

jenna wortham

So now we’re in the third act of the movie, which is not the final act. Although, you think it might be, but it’s not. It’s the third act of the movie. And now we’re getting a sense of just how far Cassie is willing to go to put the final touches, the finishing acts on this revenge fantasy. We see her going into Al Monroe’s bachelor party. And he is the guy who sexually assaulted her friend, Nina. So I just want to say this again. This is when the movie really takes a turn. It gets really bleak. It gets really violent, very disturbing. And we are going to talk about it for the remainder of the episode. So prepare yourself.

[music – funereal version of “toxic” by britney spears]

wesley morris

And this scene opens with the most funereal version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.”

jenna wortham

I would also classify this as horrorcore. It is so disturbing. It’s not a song to dance to. It’s a song to disembowel somebody to. It’s very, very ominous. She drives her car and parks it, and you realize that she’s on a mission. She’s always on a mission, but you realize that this mission has a different layer to it because when she gets out of the car, she takes off the back license plate. She doesn’t want anybody to be able to identify the plate. So that already tells you she’s engaging in a different way then she has been in the past. The tone is really dark. The mood is really stormy. It’s very ominous. Nothing good is going to happen in this house.

wesley morris

This little sequence right here, I got horror thriller, horror movie chills. So she’s going to make her entrance into this bachelor party.

archived recording (partygoer)

Oh, the doctor’s here. [MEN CHEERING]

jenna wortham

The door opens. No one questions the arrival of this woman who is presumed to be a stripper, a dancer, a performer of some sort. No one is really questioning why she’s there. No one can figure out who hired her, but it’s very much ingrained in the culture that this is the type of person who would appear at this party, so they just accept it.

wesley morris

Yeah.

jenna wortham

She’s dressed in a nurse’s costume — a white nurse’s costume with the thick white tights and these red stiletto heels. And she’s wearing this cotton candy colored short wig. She looks like kind of like a Juggalo, kind of like Harley Quinn.

wesley morris

She looks like Britney Spears.

jenna wortham

Yeah.

wesley morris

She looks like Britney Spears as Harley Quinn.

jenna wortham

And then I kind of love the scene that follows, which is she takes a bottle of warm vodka, which is its own kind of hell, and puts a pour spigot in it. And then it just shows those men just lining up with their mouths open, and she’s just splashing alcohol all over them. And she’s also doing her own a little bit of a striptease. But it’s kind of more about their raw willingness. And in my mind, just how disgusting they are, and how much in control she is in this moment. I kept trying to remember what imagery wanted to surface and what this woman, this sexy woman in a nurse costume was reminiscent of for me. And I finally figured it out a few days ago.

wesley morris

OK.

jenna wortham

It is 100 percent Janine Lindemulder. Do you remember who that is?

wesley morris

No.

jenna wortham

The super, super sexy nurse on the cover of that Blink 182 album and in that video “What’s My Age Again?” Remember that?

wesley morris

Yes.

jenna wortham

Talk about generation-defining. That video came out in 1999. And Janine is also a porn star. And there is something really amazing about seeing this sex worker on MTV and this kind of mainstream embrace. And it felt like the embodiment of that late ’90s super pro-woman, super feminist, pro-sex sex positive, all of that energy that consumed that decade for me. But and obviously as I’ve gotten older, I reflected on it, and I think there was an inherent tension between how much women were allowed to actually have agency over their sex and their sexuality, and how much the culture kind of pushed back, and how much hostility there was towards women that embraced their sexuality.

And it kind of took that as a prompt to really dump on them and let women be as sexy as they want to be, but we’re still going to confine them to our own misogynistic fantasies. We’re still going to reduce them sexually. We’re still going to treat them like shit because, whatever, they’re telling us we can. There was this conflation by male culture that women who were sexually open, and sexually forward — and sex positive, frankly — could be mistreated because of that openness of their sexuality. And I feel so much of that in this scene.

wesley morris

And she takes the bachelor up to the room.

archived recording (cassandra)

Look, I don’t have to do anything if you don’t want me to, but I only get paid if I go upstairs with you.

archived recording (al monroe)

OK.

wesley morris

He really doesn’t want to go, which is really another reversal where he’s sort of encouraged, egged on to go, but really doesn’t want to.

archived recording (al monroe)

So what do I —

archived recording (cassandra)

Get on the bed.

wesley morris

So she has get on the bed up in this master suite.

archived recording (al monroe)

So what’s your name?

archived recording (cassandra)

Candy.

archived recording (al monroe)

I mean your real name.

archived recording (cassandra)

Nina. Nina Fisher.

archived recording (al monroe)

What did you say?

archived recording (cassandra)

I said, my name is Nina Fisher.

wesley morris

And he’s like, this is a joke. I want to get out of here. He’s not comfortable.

jenna wortham

And he starts to call for help. And she’s like, all your friends downstairs, they’re passed out. And so she’s roofied all the guys downstairs with this bottle of — she is also the toxic element in this house. So it’s so full circle to me.

wesley morris

Right. Yeah, again, just utter tidiness. So, interestingly, she keeps the costume on for all of this. But is it a costume? Is it a disguise? I mean, one thing you and I have not talked about, really, because we’ve compared this movie to so many other types of movies and so many genres, but what this really is is a superhero movie, right?

This is the story of a regular person who has a horrible thing happen to them, and the expression of that horrible thing in day-to-day life is as this alter ego. It becomes this other personality. And in this case, this person is like an Avenger, so to speak. And part of that avenging job is to bring justice to Cassandra and to Nina, her friend. And there are costumes involved. And now here she is at the climax getting her arch enemy, this guy Al Monroe.

archived recording (cassandra)

Really, don’t [EXPLETIVE] cry. Tell me what you did.

archived recording (al monroe)

I didn’t do anything wrong, though.

wesley morris

What does he think was right about what he did?

archived recording (al monroe)

I was affected by it, too OK? It’s every guy’s worst nightmare getting accused like that. [LAUGHTER]

jenna wortham

Oh, my god.

wesley morris

That’s not my favorite line in the movie, but he’s writhing, and kicking, and pulling his arms trying to pull himself loose from the bedpost. Now is her chance.

archived recording (cassandra)

I wanted to be a doctor my whole life. But lately, I’ve been feeling like I might want to get back into it.

wesley morris

This is the moment we see her use some medical training to actually perform a little surgery potentially on this dude. She wants to carve Nina’s name onto his body.

archived recording (al monroe)

Help me!

jenna wortham

And as she starts to carve into his leg, he breaks free from the handcuffs and things start to go horribly wrong. And this is the fourth act of the movie. This is the beginning of the fourth act of the movie when you see how far this guy’s willing to go to keep his reputation intact, how they view her disposability. And he puts the pillow over her face, and just starts screaming, shut up. And I remember feeling disbelief when I started watching this scene. They’re not really going to kill her, are they? And they do.

wesley morris

So you get to this scene. There’s all this work done to build up to this moment. To the extent that anything is earned in this movie, I feel like this climax is earned because the mounting tension in this entire movie.

jenna wortham

Right. The most powerful thing and difficult thing about this movie is that it really gives the amount of time. It actually shows you in a visceral way what it would take to kill someone, right? She’s fighting, she won’t stop. A lot of our popular culture and entertainment, they don’t really deal with the actual violence they’re showing. You don’t always see blood. People just get shot and they fall down, or somebody gets their neck sliced and they fall down, or a woman gets killed and it takes two seconds of a three-hour movie. This movie devotes a significant amount of time to the suffocation of this woman. And I think it’s meant to really portray he’s not changing his mind. He is intent on obliterating, destroying —

wesley morris

This is non-negotiable.

jenna wortham

— this body and this person. Yeah, it is a non-negotiable death.

wesley morris

The thing that came to mind while I watched it — and this is a wild thing to say, Jenna, but like I did think about George Floyd. I thought about George Floyd’s death. I thought about the video of his death and the way that affected people. And the fact that you were seeing a living person lose his life without interruption, it’s just a haunting thing that you never forget.

jenna wortham

I think this scene is the fulcrum for me. My excitement about this movie cooled with this scene. And I think it’s really strange to watch a movie about femicide perpetuate that very same thing. And I found it to be so unsettling. And, look, I’m not a filmmaker, but I just think there — I wonder if the point could have been made another way.

wesley morris

Yeah.

jenna wortham

I just don’t know that a piece of activism about gender violence needs to sacrifice a woman to make the point. The satisfaction at different points that I enjoy throughout the movie are completely devoid in this moment and in this decision, and, frankly, for the rest of the film after this point. There’s just no possibility for redemption of this character, Al Monroe.

He is so invested in himself and his livelihood and his reputation that he’s willing to essentially kill another person to preserve himself and save himself. And he can do it with the knowledge that the culture will support him. The culture will rebound around him. Presumably, he thinks the same thing that kept him from being accountable for Nina’s rape is going to keep him from being accountable from this murder.

wesley morris

Yes. And all the stuff that you’re saying about Al is realized the next morning.

archived recording

It was an accident.

archived recording (al monroe)

Of course it was a [EXPLETIVE] accident.

archived recording

Yeah, of course it was a [EXPLETIVE] accident. No one’s going to go to jail because no one’s ever going to find out.

wesley morris

Al, with the help of his best friend — the best friend is doing all the motivating. And they burn her body. They stand over this pyre, basically, of her burning body. And then this MF goes and gets married, and everybody’s there. Ryan even shows up. And during the reception, you hear police sirens. And you know they’re coming for Al. And Cassie has basically orchestrated this whole thing. All this evidence for the police to find to make sure these dudes would be arrested for what happened to Nina, and obviously to her. And just to be sure Ryan knew what she did, she scheduled text messages to him. The phone actually says “scheduled message.” I didn’t even know phones do that. What year is this? But the texts are basically like, “Enjoy the wedding, sweetie, love Cassie and Nina. Emoji.”

To me, what that felt like was the hand beyond the grave that happens in many a horror movie and many a thriller. There’s a moment in “Fatal Attraction” where you think Glenn Close is dead after Michael Douglas chokes her in the bathtub, then she pops up with the knife and, oh! Anne Archer, Michael Douglas’s wife, shoots her. And now she’s really dead. And what happens at the end of “Promising Young Woman” is basically a version of that. It is a hand punching up out of the grave that is essentially, in the case of this movie, meant to restore order and bring justice. And we hear the sirens, and we’re supposed to know that this is over. The cops are going to take these dudes away and arrest them. And all of these dudes who did this horrible thing to her friend Nina, and to her — soon they’ll find that out, too — they’re all going down.

jenna wortham

Right. And so when we’re watching the wedding and we’re watching these dudes in their khaki colored suits, and these elaborate cheese spreads, and floral crowns, and this bougie outdoor setting, you hear the siren of the police. And it’s supposed to fill the viewers with this relief. It does. It works. You’re like, oh, my god. Thank god, right? There’s one side of me that’s like experiencing that relief of, quote, help. And then there’s the other part of me that’s much larger and much more sentient aware that’s like, the police? What are the police going to do? The police ain’t shit. And I was like, well, that’s also how you know this movie is made by white people, because I don’t know anybody who hears the arrival of police sirens and experiences the feeling of relief.

But the idea that somehow this is the solution to all the problems, and this is the thing, it’s like, again, for all the ways the movie is thinking beyond the box and thinking in these really inventive, new, strange ways, it’s still — it settles on a solution that is so disappointing and so unsatisfactory. And it works as a movie. But I think, yeah, as you were saying, it was like a morality fable. It’s really disappointing because that’s just not a solution. And the solution cannot involve carnage and casualties and half burnt bodies.

wesley morris

Right. Yeah.

jenna wortham

Who’s to say that if these guys go to jail, they won’t be able to hire lawyers that get them off? They are supported and protected by an infrastructure that over and over and over again, even throughout the course of this movie, has shown up, and protected them, and kept them out of harm’s way. So why are we meant to believe now, in this final act of the film, that justice has been served?

wesley morris

Well, I keep coming back to this word tidy, right? We are a culture that really, really likes happy endings. We want to know that we got our money’s worth. And the way we know we got it is that we leave the theater not just emotionally happy, but with a sense of closure. With the sense of closure that a movie can provide that most victims of sexual assault never receive.

jenna wortham

Right.

wesley morris

Right?

jenna wortham

Right.

wesley morris

And so this movie is kind of operating at cross purposes in some ways, right? And the movie wants to be the justice while also acknowledging the appalling lack of it, right? The fact that by the end of the movie, you still have two dead women who are dead because of a culture of sexual assault.

So the other movie that came up while I was watching “Promising Young Woman” again is “Thelma & Louise.” That movie is essentially the story of a rape survivor, and, perhaps, the survivor of more than a rape. And she tries to go away for the weekend with her best friend, Thelma. And on the first night of this little mini vacation, Thelma is almost raped. And so Louise, who is the rape survivor, shoots the guy dead. Just kills him. And the two of them spend the rest of the movie on the run, but also discover that being on this journey has kind of transformed them into these powerful, badass outlaw justice warriors. And that movie, too, ends in a kind of clash of sirens and free will, and this question of, what is justice going to look like for the two of us?

jenna wortham

Yeah.

wesley morris

Rather than surrender to Harvey Keitel, who is the exponent of the Arkansas state police or the F.B.I., they decide, you know what? We had it real good. And whatever we’re about to turn around and go surrender ourselves to is going to be a whole hell of a lot worse than driving this Thunderbird off a cliff. So what do they do? They drive the car off a cliff. And while they do it, their hands are clasped. They give each other a big kiss before they drive. And the shot of the car flying into the canyon is freeze framed, and there’s a fade to white, and the credits roll.

jenna wortham

Yes. And as the unofficial president of the Susan Sarandon and Gina Davis fan club, I was way too young to see that movie when it came out, but I’ve since watched it several times over the last couple of years. And, yes, they do share some lineage and there is some D.N.A. in there, but the ending of “Thelma & Louise” is satisfying, even though you kind of assume they die because they drive off of a cliff. But the film doesn’t show it.

The film in that freeze frame offers a futurity that we can’t imagine, or we can’t see. And you sort of have to trust their vision for it. And I just think in “Promising Young Woman,” the directorial choices don’t allow you such an easy escape, which I guess is the point. But in “Thelma & Louise,” there’s something really incredible about these two women having gone through this traumatic experience together and deciding how they’re going to exit it together. They don’t rely on the police. They choose something else. They choose something transformative. And even if that thing ends up being death, which we don’t really know, it still feels more at their hands versus at the hands of the state or any more bad men.

wesley morris

Right.

jenna wortham

And “Promising Young Woman” only assumes the outcome is death and jail. You and I are really trying to take stock of a post-2020 landscape. And we’re trying to take stock of a moment in time when we have challenged our assumptions about the world we live in and the institutions, and really aggressively acknowledging that the status quo does not work. And “Promising Young Woman” still relies on the status quo. There’s just no nuance and outcome for these women, for these men.

And “Thelma & Louise” is a great movie to bring in as a companion. People should watch that alongside this movie as well. And if they have the stomach for it, watch “I May Destroy You,” which is Michaela Coel’s show that aired on HBO last year as well about a woman surviving the aftermath of sexual assault. And similarly, it is unsparing about the sheer violence that happens when someone crosses a line, right? When someone crosses a boundary and when assaults happen. But the difference between a show like “I May Destroy You” is that Michaela Coel’s character was able to start walking towards healing, and start walking towards a resolution that did not enact any more violence or harm on her precious body. And I think for a show that really disturbed me in the same way that “Promising Young Woman” disturbed me — I had to take breaks, I had to take pauses. But I felt like I was watching an artist, and I was watching a very angry young woman figure out more violence is not the answer. And I’ve become really invested in transformative justice. And there’s a great post outlining what T.J. is by Mia Mingus, who’s a disability justice advocate and a T.J, worker that lays out what it actually means to seek justice while still reducing harm, right? And, actually, if you think about it, that’s such a radical idea.

wesley morris

Yeah.

jenna wortham

So much of American popular culture and film and TV is a fantasy that the police will save us. And those quintessential sirens that you hear at the end of “Promising Young Woman,” that’s something that’s been used over and over and over again to signal that the police equal safety. And this year is one of the years that we really are having a national conversation about how untrue that is for so many of us, including white women. It’s not just the most oppressed. It’s actually true. And I think that’s why we’re seeing these incredible protests right now happening in the U.K. over the killing of Sarah Everett, who was killed by a police officer, right? That narrative is being reinforced, and people are actually talking about it, again, at this international level, which is really incredible.

And maybe that’s why “Promising Young Woman” feels so disappointing to me, because it just — it acts like the state is the solution when we’re coming into such a deeper knowing of how they perpetuate all the problems. And what we see happening in “I May Destroy You” is an examination of the conditions that led to that violence. And her active participation and disrupting that cycle shows us an outlet for ending it, right? And in the process, we see an outcome for this very promising young woman that does not involve death.

[music]

That’s our show, friends. Still Processing is produced at The New York Times by Elyssa Dudley.

wesley morris

Our editors are Sara Sarasohn and Sasha Weiss.

jenna wortham

Marion Lozano mixes the show.

wesley morris

And special Thanks to Lisa Tobin and Wendy Dorr.

jenna wortham

Our theme music is by Kindness. It is called “World We Start” from the album “Otherness.” And if you want more information about the things we mentioned in this episode, all those links live at nytimes.com/stillprocessing.

[music]

April 1, 2021Updated 10:11 p.m. ET


“Promising Young Woman” is one of this year’s major Oscar contenders, clocking in with five nominations. It’s about a woman named Cassandra (Carey Mulligan), whose life is dedicated to avenging her best friend’s sexual assault. It’s a thriller, revenge fantasy, fairy tale and rom-com, all rolled into one. And at its core, it asks a sweeping question: What if there are no good men?

Wesley and Jenna dive into what the film gets right about sexual violence and accountability, but also discuss what’s problematic about where it eventually lands. Beware: There will be spoilers.

ImageCarey Mulligan in a scene from the film "Promising Young Woman."
Carey Mulligan in a scene from the film “Promising Young Woman.”Credit…Focus Features, via Associated Press
  • Thelma & Louise (1991) is another movie about women surviving rape and going beyond the law. Unlike the ending of “Promising Young Woman,” which asks us to put our faith in the police and criminal justice system, Thelma and Louise “don’t rely on the police,” Jenna explained. “They choose something else. They choose something transformative.”

Image

“There’s something really incredible about these two women having gone through this traumatic experience together and deciding how they’re going to exit it together,” Jenna said about the leads in “Thelma & Louise.”Credit…Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images
  • I May Destroy You,” the hit HBO series from last summer, is about a woman surviving the aftermath of sexual assault. By the end of the series, Arabella (Michaela Coel) was “able to start walking towards healing, and start walking towards a resolution that did not enact any more violence or harm on her precious body,” Jenna said. “I felt like I was watching an artist, and I was watching a very angry young woman figure out more violence is not the answer.”

  • Transformative Justice (T.J.): The show “I May Destroy You” got Jenna thinking about T.J., which is an approach to seeking justice that focuses on lessening violence. Jenna discussed this post by Mia Mingus, a writer and disability justice advocate, which outlines “what it actually means to seek justice while still reducing harm.”

  • The Audre Lorde Project: Jenna mentioned that she’s also been following the work of this organization, which focuses on community healing in response to harm.

  • In the fourth act of “Promising Young Woman,” Carey Mulligan’s character sets off to put the finishing ax on her quest for justice. She shows up at a bachelor party in a nurse’s costume, which reminded Jenna of Janine Lindemulder, who was on the cover of Blink-182’s album “Enema of the State” (1999) and featured in the music video of “What’s My Age Again?”

“There was something really amazing about seeing this sex worker on MTV in this kind of mainstream embrace,” Jenna said. But the same time, she noted, “There was this conflation by male culture, that women who were sexually open and sexually forward, and sex positive, frankly, could be mistreated because of that openness of their sexuality.”

Hosted by: Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris
Produced by: Elyssa Dudley and Hans Buetow
Edited by: Sara Sarasohn and Sasha Weiss
Engineered by: Marion Lozano
Executive Producer, Shows: Wendy Dorr
Executive Editor, Newsroom Audio: Lisa Tobin
Assistant Managing Editor: Sam Dolnick
Special thanks: Nora Keller, Julia Simon, Mahima Chablani and Desiree Ibekwe

Wesley Morris is a critic at large. He was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his criticism while at the Boston Globe. He has also worked at Grantland, The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Francisco Examiner. @wesley_morris

Jenna Wortham is a staff writer for The Times Magazine and co-editor of the book “Black Futures” with Kimberly Drew. @jennydeluxe

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