Unpacking The Twists And Turns Of ‘Promising Young Woman’

Warning: Major spoilers ahead.

As far as Emerald Fennell is concerned, you can feel however you want about “Promising Young Woman.”

“What I’ve realized this year — and what I knew in my heart that I’ve had to practice much more literally — is that what people think of this movie is none of my business and completely their right,” Fennell told me. “There was a version of this movie that could have been made that would have been a lot less likely to have think pieces, and that would have, I hope, been good, too. But that’s not what we wanted to make at all.” 

She knew the twisty rape-revenge comedy would piss off some people and leave others gleefully pumping their fists. I’m in the latter camp. Fennell’s directorial debut, which she also wrote, is cunning and audacious, from its winky pastel palette to its take-no-prisoners finale. We root for Cassie Thomas (a career-best Carey Mulligan), the medical-school dropout at the film’s center, as she outwits male predators who assume they can take advantage of her, yet Fennell cleverly coils our allegiance by making Cassie a bit dastardly herself. When Cassie lets an old friend (Alison Brie) think she’s been assaulted, or when she dupes an unsympathetic university administrator (Connie Britton) into believing her teenage daughter is vulnerable to the same horror, vengeance starts to feel thorny.

“Promising Young Woman” — currently playing in select theaters and premiering on video-on-demand platforms in January — ends with Cassie dying at the hands of one of those predators, clean-cut Al Monroe (Chris Lowell), a classmate who raped Cassie’s longtime best friend, Nina, and effectively drove her to suicide. Al will go down for his crimes not because he violated Nina but because he murdered Cassie and burned her body with the help of his buddy (Max Greenfield). No one truly suffers for their sexual transgressions, and that’s part of the point: Rapists often walk free while survivors absorb the resulting trauma. Having learned that her charming beau (Bo Burnham) was also culpable in Nina’s assault, Cassie risks becoming even more of a shell of herself. She is shrewd enough to know that showing up at Al’s bachelor party to seek retribution might result in her death, but in some ways, Cassie had already died years ago alongside Nina, who was like a sister to her. 

Fennell plants the seeds for this searing outcome until they bloom into a dark and thrilling tour de force. Curious about her process, I asked Fennell, who was also head writer on Season 2 of “Killing Eve” and portray Camilla Parker Bowles on “The Crown,” to break down the nitty-gritty of “Woman” via Zoom.

Most Hollywood movies do not use color to tell a story in such an active and detailed way. You bathe “Promising Young Woman” in baby blues and bright pinks. What was your thinking behind the specifics of that color scheme?

There was a few things. I think, firstly, I really wanted the whole film to feel part of Cassie’s life and Cassie’s journey. She’s learned to subvert her femininity and her prettiness and her blondness to effectively hide and mislead — like lots of addicts do, actually. I very much think of her as an addict. And so she’s just learned the tricks to keep things functioning on the surface, to stop people from asking too many questions. For me, if she’s fluffy and pink and welcoming but she’s boiling with this terrible rage, then I think it was important that the film itself reflected that, that it felt just as inviting as her and just as misleading as she is.

There’s definitely a way of making serious movies about serious things. I think that really bypasses the experience of a lot of people. A lot of nasty things happen in beautiful places. This is a movie about appearances being deceptive. And so it made sense to me that it would look and sound appealing. And from a practical point of view, I didn’t want to make something didactic. We set out to make something that would stand on its own two feet as a thriller, as a dark comedy, as a romance. When I sent the script out to people, I sent it with a playlist featuring Britney Spears and Paris Hilton and with mood boards of how it would look. I wanted to be very clear that it wouldn’t feel dour, it wouldn’t feel preachy, and it would not let anyone off the hook.

What did you see Cassie as being addicted to?

I think she’s in a cycle of self-harm, and I think that is a very similar cycle to the addiction cycle, which is that something has happened that she has not been able to directly look at for a long time. And so she’s found an outlet to relieve some of that pain. What you see, particularly at the beginning of the movie, is somebody who has a very controlled, managed way. The build of tension, the build of misery, the build of anger and frustration. The act is her nights out, what she does during them and then the power that that gives her, the control that gives her. You see it the day after the scene with Adam Brody, with the hot dog and the walk of shame. It’s pure power, pure adrenaline. But of course, in any addictive cycle, that high plummets and then it’s the self-loathing and the revulsion. 

That’s what Carey and I talked about a lot at the beginning: This is just a scab that she’s picked at for years and years. Think of how knotty that scar is. It means she isn’t a clear-cut person. She’s not necessarily even a nice person. I respect and love her, but whether or not there’s anyone in this film who’s nice in the way that we’re used to characters being nice, I don’t know. 

Almost every single one of the men you cast would, outside of this movie, be described as a beloved heartthrob. You really weaponize Bo Burnham’s charm, and you’ve got Seth Cohen and McLovin’ and Max Greenfield, who we fell in love with as Schmidt on “New Girl,” playing predators who think they’re decent guys. Did you set out to make the casting of the men a bit meta? 

Yes, absolutely. Well, meta? Probably not, because I think anything too meta can be a bit alienating. It’s funny, a lot of the conversation has been about me casting them against type. Actually, I’ve cast them completely to type. It wasn’t so much that it was meta, but for both the men and women — including Connie Britton and Alison Brie — I really wanted to cast people you like. It was all about testing the audience’s allegiances to people. There’s nothing we love more than a villain and a very clear-cut victim. We love that as a society and as a viewer because we know who’s good and who’s bad. What is really discomforting is when we’re seeing people that we really like and respect who’ve been people that we’ve had crushes on since childhood do stuff we don’t like. 

Especially when you’re making a movie like this in a very short amount of time on a very low budget, you need to firstly cast people who you know are brilliant, and I think every actor in this is brilliant. And I think often comedy actors don’t get an opportunity to show that so much. But I certainly, in my experience, think that comedy actors are willing to go places and have a lack of inhibition that’s really amazing. So I didn’t mean for it to be meta, I suppose, but the quicker you can put people in a headspace, the better.

When the movie first opens and we get the introductory scenes with Cassie, we are fully rooting for her to one-up these predatory goobers. But that starts to get tricky when she has lunch with Alison Brie’s character. And it gets even trickier when she’s making Connie Britton’s character think that her teenage daughter is being sexually assaulted. What did you imagine the audience would be feeling at those two moments?

I think part of what I wanted to make was a female-led revenge movie, but with a real woman inside it. And we’re so used to seeing angry men in movies punch a stranger, and we never think, “That poor guy! What if he has a family? He’s bleeding on the floor!” We’re like, “Oh, poor [male protagonist]. He’s really hurting.” We know that he’s hurting because we don’t care about the people he punches or murders or whatever. So I’m conscious, for example, of the fact that Bo, I think, as far as people are concerned, is just the heartthrob of the movie. It’s so important they don’t know that he’s been cast in a subversive way. 

Revenge isn’t nice. The stuff that she’s been through isn’t nice. There’s a reason that she has been doing something, I suppose, in a recreational way, in an impersonal way. She knows that if she gets close to the real thing, she can’t trust herself. It’s fucking dark and it’s going to get darker. And so as an audience member, what do you do? This is what’s exciting about revenge as a genre. You want it, but when you get it, it’s not quite what you wanted. And then that’s interesting because then we’re all complicit, because what do we want? Do we want her to kill them? But again, she doesn’t do anything. That’s what’s so frightening and powerful about her. She doesn’t do anything to Alison. She doesn’t do anything to Dean Walker’s daughter.  

Did you ever flirt with the idea of having her do any of those things?

No.

Because you needed the audience to stay loyal to her?

No, because she wouldn’t. She would never, ever, ever, ever, having been through it. She’s an avenging angel, and she’s coming with two things: She’s coming with forgiveness and redemption, or punishment. She goes to places drunk, and she does nothing. She’s completely inert. If people pick her up, that’s what happens. If they don’t, she goes home. But someone always picks her up.

So this is the thing about her: She would never, ever, ever do anything that would actually damage a woman. But what she does with Dean Walker and what she does with [Brie’s character] Madison is she says, “This happened. Do you remember it? Do you think it was right?” All she wants is for one person to say, “This was wrong, it should never have happened, and I’m so sorry.” That’s all she’s been looking for. From Cassie’s point of view, as malevolent and frightening as it is, she’s saying, “I wanted you to see it. You don’t, so I have to show you. You need me to show you. And now you understand.” 

And again, this is why I’m so interested in female rage and how it manifests itself, because I think it’s so much more interesting than what we’re expecting. If you’re a woman, for me, I had to think, “OK, what am I capable of physically?” Not much. I don’t go to the gym. And it was important that, for the end of the movie, when it comes to that, when the idea of violence is flirted with, it ends like it ends. Because there’s a reason that we don’t go out and do these things, because the chances of us surviving are just so slim. For me, it was like, “What could I do?” And the thing that I could do is I could play tricks on people. I could fuck with their minds, and I could outsmart them and I could make them think things had happened in order for them to change their views. That’s what she’s doing. She’s sort of a pimp, a Mephistophelian baddie. But what’s so interesting is, if she just was going and torturing people and killing them, nobody would find it very discerning. There was a really fun and satisfying version of this film that was kick-ass and empowering, but that would’ve felt so completely bogus to me. But it also does mean that it has been a little bit controversial, I think. But not as much as we thought it would be, honestly.

We talked about the color scheme, which brings me to the wig Cassie wears in the final sequence. Part of why that wig is so striking is because it’s seen on a famous person at the big climax of a galvanizing movie. But it also continues the color story you’re telling. We see those pinks and blues within the wig. So did the color scheme come from the wig, or did the wig come from the color scheme?

Michael Perry, who is the art director of this movie and a genius and the man who did “It Follows” and the “Sweet Valley High” TV show, when I first was talking to him about it, I was just like, “It’s going to be super-ultra-feminine. It needs to be almost sickly sweet and very strict. It needs to be very formal because of this thing about Cassie that’s quite formal and reserved.” With Mike, what we said was, “What if Cassie was cool-blue, but in every scene there’s a pop of red? And as we move forward in the movie, it gets redder and redder and redder until we get to the climactic moments where they’re red, red, red — red shoes, red house, red room.” And I think all of that stuff is just so fun.

As for the wig, in the script I think it just said “a colorful wig,” and the amazing hair and makeup designers brought a few options. It needed to serve a few purposes. These are guys that she’d been to college with, so she needed to be unrecognized. She needed the makeup to be heavy. She needed the wig to mask her, because even though we’ve implied in the movie that she looks very different — because [Burnham’s character] Ryan can hardly tell who she is when he first encounters her at the coffee shop — she still needs to be careful, because Al barely recognizes her until she says who she is. But also what I didn’t want it to be was too neat and tidy. The reason that Cassie brings sneakers to walk up the hill and then changes into her red shoes only once she’d gotten to the top is because, if you’re making a film that’s very stylized, you also need to always keep an eye on those things that do feel a bit bogus, like hair not being out of place if you’ve walked up a fucking mountain in stilettos. So there’s something about that wig that I liked. It was a bit messy. There needed to be that moment because every revenge movie has that moment.

The moment when you know something big is about to happen and someone’s about to suffer some consequences. 

With that stylish, iconic, sexy outfit, and all of those sorts of tricks. I think it was important, though, that it felt Cassie had done it herself, that it felt real in that moment. 

This is the ultimate spoiler question: Was it clear to you from the beginning, when you first sat down to write the script, that Cassie would die at the end?

No, but it became clear pretty soon. I think the truth is that I wanted it to end the way everyone wanted it to end, but once I’d finally gotten to the place of the revenge movie where we’re all begging for blood and where she’s getting out weapons, I didn’t believe that Al wouldn’t lash out and wouldn’t do everything in his power to stop it from happening. And also statistically, it just seemed like the odds were against it.

And then the other thing was, it felt like [if it has a positive ending] then it is the same as every other movie. You’re cheating because you want what we all want, which is for things to be OK. But they’re not OK at the end of the movie, and they’re not OK still. You don’t want to leave that film and think, “Oh, great, cool. What are we having for dinner?” Because even if people find it hard to swallow or difficult to stomach or they just don’t agree with it or they don’t like it, I understand that. But the reason we got such a stellar cast and people like Nancy Steiner, who’s our costume designer, who did “Twin Peaks” and “The Virgin Suicides,” is because those people came on board because they believed in it. They just completely understood it. I felt in my bones it was right, and so did the other people, but that’s not to say that there weren’t other people who passed on it because they didn’t like that.

Because of the ending? Was that a problem with potential studios, too?

No. Well, I don’t know, because Focus Features came on board really early, before we even started shooting. But certainly other producers definitely wanted to change the ending, absolutely. And there were some actors who found it too difficult. And that’s fine. But I found the people who wanted a nice, happy ending tended to be, well, they were often men, actually. And they wanted to make it the film I was deliberately setting up to subvert, the thing I just absolutely didn’t want to make. If it had been up to me, the ending would have been much, much, much darker. The original end I had was even more lacerating.

Oh, really? What was it?

I would never say, because I wouldn’t want people to wish for that instead. The thing is the thing is the thing. But I just mean that there’s always a push and pull with these things, and I think the movie as it is is, honestly, exactly what I wanted to make. But there was a time where it went way darker. And I’m glad that it doesn’t. I don’t think that would have been right either, actually. Those were the two prongs, and I think that where it is now is exactly where I want it.

Beyond the dynamics with the men at the bachelor party, my interpretation of the end is that Cassie is never going to be able to make peace with Nina’s death, which means she’s never going to truly be able to live her life, which means that, frankly, for her own sake, she can’t go on anymore. 

Carey articulates it very well. By no means is she going to that cabin on a suicide mission. She absolutely isn’t. But we’ve seen how meticulous she is. There’s no way she’d go into a place that dangerous and not have a contingency plan.

She knows the inevitability of it.

She knew what it could be, at least. I think that’s what she’s deliberately doing. The way that she fights certainly implies she was not looking for that to happen. She really wasn’t. But I think she’s become so cavalier with everything; she’s so furious that her risk-taking has gone much further. She’s taking risks that she never should have, which is why she never went down this road in the beginning.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

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