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Promising Young Woman's Ending Is Not "Crazy", It Uses Action Movie Logic

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Promising Young Woman has proven instantly controversial, but the Carey Mulligan vehicle’s shocking ending isn’t “crazy,” as many critics suggested - it just uses action movie logic. The directorial debut of former Killing Eve showrunner Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman follows Carey Mulligan’s troubled antiheroine as she routinely pretends to be drunk, waits for predatory men to take her home, and then blackmails them into changing their ways upon arrival.

As the synopsis indicates, Promising Young Woman is a dark movie whose moments of sharp wit and effective black comedy don’t stop the critically-acclaimed psychological thriller from being deeply affecting. As a result of Promising Young Woman’s themes of sexual assault and in-depth discussion of sensitive content, some viewers may not want to read further.

No scene in Promising Young Woman has done more to divide viewers and critics than the shocking ending. When Mulligan’s Cassie arrives at the bachelor party of her deceased best friend’s rapist, the audience assumes that she’s due some cathartic payback, as her friend’s rape and subsequent suicide began the heroine’s history of confronting would-be rapists. At first, Cassie poses as a stripper and seems set to mutilate Al, the rapist in question—then Al gains the upper hand and suffocates her, killing her and disposing of the body. At his wedding, the last step of Cassie’s plan is revealed as the entire party receives a video of Al assaulting Nina just as the police arrive to arrest him for Cassie’s murder. It’s a bracing, brutal depiction of self-sacrifice which many critics have called “crazy,” despite Promising Young Woman's ending scene fitting a well-loved action movie tradition.

The self-sacrificial hero trope is a longstanding tradition in dark action movies and thrillers (spoilers abound from here on out), with the likes of Logan, Gladiator, Braveheart, Children of Men, V For Vendetta, and Terminator 2 all featuring some permutation of a protagonist dying in service of a greater good. As Mulligan herself noted in an interview with Yahoo!, “we have countless films about men who go on crusades on behalf of their loved ones and we never say they’re crazy or that they’ve lost their minds with grief. They’re going around having shootouts and ninja fights in every scene. That is objectively insane. What Cassie’s doing, by comparison, is fairly mild.” It’s a fair point, and one that exposes the skewed expectations some reviewers have for female protagonists. After all, a prominent criticism of Rambo: Last Blood is that Stallone’s legendary titular hero didn’t die at the end of his revenge mission, since that's what is expected from the genre.

This imbalanced response to Promising Young Woman’s challenging story has also been reflected in numerous reviews calling the movie a “female Joker,” a remarkably wrong-headed take for numerous reasons. For one thing, this idea implies that the issues affecting Joker’s eponymous antihero (untreated mental illness, unemployment, poverty) are unique to men and don’t affect women equally. For another, the comparison doesn’t account for the fact that Promising Young Woman is addressing issues of toxic masculinity, whereas Joker is very explicitly about class warfare. It’s the sort of lazy comparison that boils down to “both movies have a protagonist who is angry about a societal ill,” and it’s one that does a disservice to both (very different) movies. Mulligan’s layered, explosive portrayal of Cassie does merit comparison to Joaquin Phoenix’s superb work in Joker, but Promising Young Woman deserves Oscar buzz of its own without an inaccurate comparison to the comic book blockbuster.
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