Promising Young Woman — one of the eight nominees for Best Picture at the 2021 Academy Awards — is one of the year’s most difficult movies to watch, but there’s also a ton of hidden details that you can spot if you’re willing to revisit this searing film. Huge spoilers for Promising Young Woman ahead — stop if you haven’t seen the film!
Writer-director Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut, which earned the Crown actress a nomination for Best Directing and Best Original Screenplay, tells the dark story of Cassie (Carey Mulligan), once known as a "promising young woman" who was set to become a doctor. However, when Carrie’s best friend Nina — who is never seen on screen — is brutally assaulted at a party, both of their lives change, and it’s strongly implied that Nina takes her own life after her attackers aren’t held responsible.
In the aftermath, Cassie wants revenge for her friend, pretending to be drunk at bars and luring "nice guys" home with her before she reveals that she’s entirely sober just as they’re about to take advantage of her falsely inebriated state. Along the way, she learns that Nina’s main attacker, Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) is getting married… and realizes she can finally get vengeance. Here are some things you’ll only notice throughout Promising Young Woman‘s twisting, turning story if you watch it more than once.
Promising Young Woman is filled with religious imagery
Throughout the film, Cassie is seen with light fixtures behind her head or her arms splayed out to form a cross, bringing to mind plenty of religious imagery. According to an interview with Fennell in The Film Stage, this was extremely deliberate.
"It’s one of the things that early on was on my mind that Cassie is an avenging angel," Fennell said. "And it is sort of Biblical without it sounding like overblown. It has the simplicity actually, I hope, of a parable or a Biblical story in a sort of morality tales we were told growing up. Certainly a kind of journey in threes that you get in those stories. So for me it was important that avenging angel was never overtly stated but always implied, at least visibly."
"So the first time we see her she is sort of splayed out and kind of drunk but it is almost like a crucifixion," she continued. "For me there is no position more powerful and vulnerable than that, you know. It’s got two things Cassie has: power and vulnerability. I just felt that giving her that strength in the beginning made sense and then going through it we got halos and wings and all sorts of little things behind her, above her that all have these pointers. That’s why so much of filmmaking is a unique art form really. Because you can be allegorical, you can make things somewhat heightened."
The musical cues contain some very pointed references
Anyone who watches Promising Young Woman will definitely notice the exceptional soundtrack, from a string quartet cover of Britney Spears’ "Toxic" to a perfect use of Paris Hilton’s pop song "Stars are Blind." However, there’s one song on the soundtrack you might have missed… and it’s seriously significant.
After Cassie tries to get her ultimate revenge on Al during his bachelor party by carving Nina’s name into his stomach, he physically overtakes her, killing her in the process (in a truly horrifying two and a half minute scene that refuses to cut away from Cassie’s murder). Shocked, Al must turn to his friend Joe (Max Greenfield) to try and dispose of her body, which they do in the cruelest way possible… by burning Cassie in a field where they believe nobody will ever find her.
However, what you might not catch is the song that plays while Joe and Al burn Cassie’s body: "Something Wonderful," a track from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classic musical The King & I. The song, which isn’t included on the soundtrack release, is extremely important. As critic Linda Holmes pointed out on the NPR podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, "it’s basically a woman explaining why you have to love men no matter how bad they are because sometimes they’re great and you just sort of have to put it all aside and love them anyway. And it is a chilling, chilling song in some ways." Holmes was a huge fan of this particular move: "Placed in that context, it’s as much as I’ve admired, I think, a needle drop in quite a long time."
The real life origin of Promising Young Woman’s title might sound familiar
If you’re curious as to how where Fennell came up with the title of Promising Young Woman, the truth is that there’s a few layers to this movie’s name. First is Cassie herself; once a promising med student described by others as the top student in her class, Cassie is now a broken woman after Nina’s assault, living with her parents and wasting her potential working in a coffee shop. However, when some critics and fans suggested that the title was a reference to Brock Turner — who was only lightly punished for assaulting Chanel Miller and was referred to as a "promising young man" by the judge in charge of his case — Fennell demurred.
"I don’t think that it was, but certainly that as a phrase is so commonly used when young men do something wrong," Fennell told Yahoo! Entertainment. "They are almost always referred to as ‘promising young man’ whether it’s a case like this of assault or if they get a gun and do something completely reprehensible. There’s always this inclination to be forgiving. I believe entirely in forgiveness, but it’s an interesting thing, when you look at the phrase ‘promising young woman,’ it’s hardly ever used, and if it is used, it’s usually to describe a girl who’s no longer alive. You can only really be a ‘promising young woman’ when it’s too late, when your promise is completely aborted."
How, exactly, does Cassie get her revenge on men who wrong her?
Films and television shows about vengeful women typically take a pretty violent route, and at first glance, Promising Young Woman does exactly that. After Cassie goes home with Brody’s character, he’s never seen again after she reveals her ruse, and as she walks home the next morning in last night’s clothes, it seems as if blood is dripping from her hands.
However, upon closer inspection, it’s not blood — Cassie is eating a hot dog, and she’s simply covered in ketchup. This moment is actually a perfect metaphor for almost every other action Cassie takes throughout the film; though she makes people think that she’s harmed them or loved ones out of a desire for revenge, she actually hasn’t done anything, preferring to psychologically torture her victims than actually inflict violence. When she tries to carve Nina’s name into Al’s body at the film’s climax, it’s the first time she tries to do something overtly violent, but the first time you see the film, it definitely seems, at first, like she’s murdering men without a second thought.
Promising Young Woman uses smart casting choices to subvert expectations
Right from the beginning, Fennell uses one brilliant directing choice to subvert audience expectations — specifically, with her casting choices. The very first man who tries to take advantage of Cassie while she’s drunk is The O.C.‘s very own Seth Cohen, Adam Brody, and he’s followed by Superbad standout McLovin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and comedic standby Sam Richardson (Veep, I Think You Should Leave). When Cassie lets down her guard and starts dating pediatrician Ryan (Bo Burnham), he seems perfect… until she discovers he was involved with Cassie’s assault too. As for Lowell and Greenfield, you probably remember them from Veronica Mars and New Girl, among other projects, where, like the others, they’ve played lovable "nice guys."
According to one of the film’s casting directors, Mary Vernieu, these choices are incredibly deliberate on Fennell’s part. "She knew exactly how to play with audience expectation about who the good guy is and who’s not," Vernieu told Vulture. "She knew exactly what she wanted, and that’s always a pleasure. Some directors don’t know what they want and then you’re just shooting in the dark." So how did these actors feel about playing such toxic men? Pretty good, apparently. "Everybody wanted to be part of the film," the movie’s other casting director, Lindsay Graham, said. "It was an embarrassment of riches."
Watch for Emerald Fennell’s brief cameo in Promising Young Woman
Makeup tutorials are all over YouTube, and before her nights out at the club, Cassie indulges in them as well — but if you pay close attention during a lesson on lipstick, you’ll spot writer-director Emerald Fennell herself in a small cameo as a YouTube makeup artist.
If Fennell looks familiar, even in this brief glimpse, it’s because you’ve definitely seen her before. In 2020, Fennell earned rave reviews for her supporting role on the fourth season of Netflix’s The Crown as real life figure Camilla Parker-Bowles, now the Duchess of Cornwall, who made waves in the 1990s as the "third person" in Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s marriage (who were played on The Crown by Josh O’Connor and Emma Corrin). Fennell captures Parker-Bowles’ essence and personal struggle perfectly, and now that she’s made Promising Young Woman, she’s proved that she’s just as powerful behind the camera as she is in front of it.