Can a Revenge Movie Succeed Without Violence?
I felt cheated by the lack of catharsis in "Promising Young Woman"—but maybe that was the point
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In the 2017 film Revenge (directed by Coralie Fargeat), the protagonist Jen is raped by a friend of her lover. Her lover, the rapist, and a third man then chase her to the edge of a cliff and push her off. She falls several stories and is impaled on the spearlike branch of a small, dead tree. Her assailants leave her for dead, and since they are ostensibly on vacation to hunt, they decide to pick up her body and dispose of it later, on their way to go slaughter some animals.
Jen is able to free herself from the tree, but then has to walk around for half of the movie with a penis-like branch protruding from her body. She is eventually able to remove the phallus, take some peyote, and cauterize her wound with a beer can. The label of the can has a phoenix on it, and when Jen saves her own life, she also brands her abdomen with her own large phoenix tattoo.
The movie is heavy-handed, gory, and very Freudian. The symbolism is obvious, and the plot follows closely in the tradition of the rape-revenge genre: girl is wronged, girl survives, girl murders everyone in her wake. Certain scenes are difficult to watch because of the amount of blood and gore. Despite all this, I love this movie with all my heart because when all is said and done, Jen is victorious. She wins.
I’m not the only one who likes to see a hero triumph over someone who has done her wrong. Movies like The Crow, Kill Bill, John Wick, and The Dark Knight are beloved by millions of watchers. The entire superhero genre, in a sense, is about good guys avenging wrongdoing. Three of the top ten grossing movies of all time are Avengers films.
Because of my love for Revenge, and for similar movies like the 2007 Teeth, where a young woman with vagina dentata moves through the world castrating would-be rapists, I was excited to see Promising Young Woman, the Carey Mulligan vehicle directed by Emerald Fennell. I’d been watching the trailers for months, and was ready for what I thought would be a witty, ruthless revenge movie.
The colors in the trailer are all neon pink and blue (very similar to the marketing and trailers for Revenge) and in it, we watch the protagonist Cassie (played by Carey Mulligan) smash a windshield and draw hash marks in a diary. An instrumental cover of the Britney Spears tune “Toxic” accompanies the images. This version of the song, with its screeching violins, sounds less like a pop hit and more like the soundtrack to a slasher film.
The movie starts out by making fun of the men who approach the protagonist. In one of the opening scenes Cassie goes to a bar and pretends to be blackout drunk. She acts as if she’s having a hard time keeping her head up, and when a “nice guy” played by Adam Brody approaches her she slurringly explains that she can’t find her phone. He offers to take her home, only to “change his mind” at the last second, taking her to his place instead.
He carries her into his bedroom and begins to take off her underwear. Still pretending to be drunk, she asks him what he’s doing. He continues and Cassie asks again. When he does not stop, she sits up straight in bed, revealing she is actually sober, and asks him pointedly, “Hey, what are you doing?”
Over the course of the movie, we learn that Cassie’s best friend Nina was raped in medical school by one of their classmates. Because Nina was drunk, the rape was dismissed by the school. Toward the end of the film, Cassie confronts a female dean who explains to her that the school didn’t want to ruin the young man’s future, that he was a “promising young man.”
We watch as Cassie catches a series of men in attempted rape, and here is where the movie defies expectations. Having watched the trailers, I assumed that at some point Cassie would murder one of these men. Instead she makes them realize that she is not drunk, makes them explain themselves, and leaves. I turned to my boyfriend at one point and said, “So all she’s going to do is talk to them and make them feel bad?” I wanted one of these men to suffer violence for trying to hurt Cassie—a moment of discomfort wasn’t good enough.
Promising Young Woman is clearly situated in the rape-revenge genre, yet most of Cassie’s movement in the story feels less like action and more like sleight of hand. We watch as Cassie loses more and more: her best friend, her career, her boyfriend, and ultimately, her life. All of the men survive, and only one of them suffers any legal consequences. When the credits rolled, I felt depressed, anxious, and disappointed. In contrast, at the end of Revenge I felt happy, even elated.
In many ways Promising Young Woman is a more complex, more feminist movie, despite the fact they are both directed by women who are self-described feminists. The plot of Promising Young Woman is unique, and it refuses to objectify Cassie. Revenge, on the other hand, spends a lot of time in close-ups on Jen’s lips and butt. (I believe Fargeat is making a comment about the male gaze with these shots, but still, they are there, and we get to gawk at actress Matilda Lutz’s rear end just as much as the men in the movie do.) So why did I feel like Promising Young Woman was such a bummer?
One key difference between Promising Young Woman and Revenge is the scope of the story. Jen is isolated in the desert with her three assailants. She must fight and kill to survive the men who are hunting her. Because the movie does not appeal to anyone beyond the four lead characters, it eliminated my need to worry about any legal system or outside community. Within the parameters set up by the story, either Jen will kill, or she will die. As a viewer, I’m let off the hook for enjoying the slaughter.
Similarly, her three assailants are blatantly awful, cold-blooded people. About halfway through the movie, Jen’s rapist (Stan) wakes up in an SUV after waiting in it all night, keeping an eye out for Jen. What Stan doesn’t know is that one of his friends (Dmitri) is floating dead in the lake nearby, having been stabbed to death by Jen.
While Stan pees outside, he spots a spider and urinates on it, chuckling while he does so. We watch as the creature struggles and then dies. Even while taking a pee, this man is mean and callous. He has to dominate everything around him, even the natural world. He is easy to hate, and that’s why, when Dmitri’s bloated corpse floats up to Stan while he’s washing his face in the river, I laughed. The scene is shocking, but it is also funny.
In contrast, Cassie is stuck in the modern world. She has access to anyone in her town who might deign to listen to her. She is a modern-day Cassandra, who pleads with former school mates, the dean, Nina’s mother, and her own parents to take Nina’s plight seriously. (Nina is never seen on screen, and the film implies that she committed suicide because of the pain and humiliation resulting from her rape.)
Cassie is telling the truth, and she wants someone to do something about it. Yet in this version of the story, rather than not believing her, it seems that everyone around her knows she is right and they just don’t care. She is met with responses like “we were just kids,” or “we get accusations like this all the time,” or “you gotta let it go.” As far as support from her community or legal ramifications go, she might as well be in the desert. Revenge offers the fantasy of an isolated moment when anything, even bloody justice, is possible. Promising Young Woman engages with the reality: Help is not coming, and catharsis may not be either.
Director Emerald Fennell imagined a different kind of story, where revenge is taken non-violently—but it’s clear that this is not a choice on Cassie’s part, but a constraint. Cassie is repeatedly put in situations where the other characters believe she has done something awful, killed someone, or put another woman in a position where she could be assaulted. She explains over and over that she can’t do something like that. The men in this story can get away with things. She can’t.
Cassie’s community turns its back on her. No one will help until it’s too late. While Revenge is a fantasy where Jen is allowed to completely transform herself into a blood-soaked, victorious survivor, Cassie refuses to transform, to hold her friend’s tragedy close and live her life by its memory. Because of that, she is completely crushed by the apathy of those around her.
My negative reaction to Promising Young Woman made me realize there is something in the violence of more traditional revenge films that makes me feel better about the world. These movies may be gross and terrifying, but if the story is well-executed, I’m left with the feeling that justice has been done, that the protagonist has received a kind of payment for the trauma they have suffered. Revenge that has to operate within legal and moral constraints doesn’t feel like it matches the power of my anger.
But at the same time, fantasies like Revenge do us a disservice by letting us feel satisfied. I can watch Revenge and then immediately go about my day. I’ve been granted catharsis and can let the experience fade away into the background of my life. I think that is part of the reason why revenge movies are so popular. Promising Young Woman isn’t like that. It won’t let you go. Even now, weeks after watching the movie, I still can’t shake the feeling of despair Cassie’s story brought me. I can’t look away, and I think that was the point. Within the constraints women operate under, catharsis is a lie. The best revenge we can hope for is forcing people, for one moment, to listen.