Warning: This article contains major spoilers for Promising Young Woman.
After all those glimpses of Carey Mulligan doing very, very bad things set to super-slow, depressing cuts of Britney Spears songs, you didn't think Promising Young Woman would have a happy ending, did you?
"I had to be honest," writer-director Emerald Fennell tells EW of choosing to end the rape-revenge tale with the brutal death of its protagonist, Cassie (Mulligan), at the hands of the man who sexually assaulted her med school classmate Nina years before. "It's how the system works. The house always wins. For me, it would be an enormous injustice to be so honest the whole way through this movie and then have a Hollywood ending that also let us all off the hook."
In the film (now playing in select theaters), Fennell baits her audience with thrilling genre mechanisms. The setup is an intriguing one: After Nina's assault and subsequent suicide, Cassie quits med school, works at a coffee shop by day, and spends her evening hours pretending to get drunk, going home with seemingly sweet men, and confronting them when they try to take advantage of her. Such scenes feel cathartic — especially in the #MeToo era — but it's what happens during the film's climax that takes it from being stylish cinematic therapy to a cold look at the stark reality for women.
After learning that her charming new boyfriend, Ryan (Bo Burnham), played a role in Nina's assault, Cassie decides to end her quest for vengeance against Nina's rapist, Al (Chris Lowell), by infiltrating his bachelor party dressed as a stripper, drugging the guests one by one, and handcuffing her target to a large bed. There, she pulls out a scalpel and attempts to carve Nina's name into his flesh, but Al overpowers her and smothers her to death with a pillow. He then burns her body with the help of a friend (Max Greenfield) and proceeds to his wedding as if nothing happened. He's ultimately arrested because Cassie had a backup plan (a cache of incriminating emails and texts set to disperse in the event of her death), but the ending still stings — and that's exactly what Fennell wanted.
"It's necessary for people think she's resorting to violence, and that they want her to. Once the trailers were released, everyone assumed she was killing people, even though we didn't see anything remotely like that," Fennell says. For her, the film is partly an experiment in social complicity. "It's important that the audience wants her to pick up that scalpel. All of us do. By that stage, we're ready. We're primed for it. We might be frightened of her. It was important to me that the first moment that violence comes into it — this lie we're all sold, that if you're a woman in a revenge movie that you can just grab a machete [and end it] — what happens is, she loses. It felt, to me, incredibly untrue to give [her the upper hand]."
She adds: "When I wrote it, in my mind I was thinking that there was a way of making this movie that's like, 'Hell yeah, stick it to the man!' But the harder and more honest way, that hits you in a primal way, is [asking] what happens when you're in a room with a man and they're frightened of you and you have a weapon?"
It may have been painful for Fennell to conclude her story on a violent note, but the goal was to get audiences to "talk about it, whether they liked it or found it hard or not," so that they "keep thinking about it" and get inspired to make changes in the real world.
"We need to talk about this stuff," Fennell says. "I didn't want people to leave thinking it was fixed."