Warning: SPOILERS lie ahead for the end of Promising Young Woman.
If revenge is a dish best served cold, Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman nailed it. The finale of the black comedy and thriller from Season 2 Killing Eve showrunner Emerald Fennell keeps us on our toes until the last frame, with an ending so dark and jaw dropping, we can barely believe that just happened! But a red-lipstick-red bold move is going to be a divisive one and that’s certainly the case for the Promising Young Woman ending in terms of the big twist that went down at Al Monroe’s Bachelor Party Bash.
I definitely see both sides here. While there is a part of me who would have been A-OK to see Cassandra sneak by without all the dust and flames, I believe, Promising Young Woman absolutely needed to make its shocking asphyxiation in the final act to bring home the queasy, “WT-actual-F'' chills down my spine by the time the credits rolled. So let’s get into that dark twist and why the ending made it seriously great.
The Promising Young Woman Twist Ending
First to all the toxic details. The twist of Promising Young Woman happens on the night of Al Monroe’s Bachelor Party, after a major falling out with Bo Burnham’s Ryan. Carey Mulligan’s Cassie was up and ready to lead a happy life with her quirky doctor boyfriend until Allison Brie’s Madison comes back to give her an old phone with footage of her late friend Nina’s public rape and her BF is a bystander during the horrifying incident. We don’t know Cassie’s grand plan right off the bat, but she goes in disguise as a stripper dressed as a nurse, who slips all the bachelors a little something in their vodka shots and takes Al Monroe upstairs for a “private dance”.
Cassie ties Nina’s rapist to a bed and starts to taunt him by reminding him of Nina and what happened to her. She truly terrifies Al Monroe by telling him about the video she has in her possession and she takes out a scalpel and declares that she intends to make sure her name is all over him (literally). Before Cassie can enact some revenge, Al is able to free himself from one of the handcuffs and smother her to death with a pillow in an agonizing scene that kills off our protagonist.
It's a shocking direction for Promising Young Woman to go, but ends with some justice for Nina and Cassie when she is able to collect enough evidence to get Al arrested for her murder and basically ruin his life for his actions in college that had been haunting her for seven years. Just thinking about this again is creating a pit in my stomach. Whoa, what an ending.
Why It Worked
Watching the main character in any movie get killed off in most circumstances is going to put us off balance. It’s an audacious choice for a filmmaker to make, and a deeply unsettling one. That’s pretty much the point here. This is a dire but very real subject matter at play here. Just from a statistical standpoint, women are more violently and adversely effected by sexual assault and rape in our society than men are and that is fully put on display with the finale. Al Monroe is undoubtedly going to prison for his actions by the end, but Promising Young Woman also shows just how much exhaustive work it took for officials to even take notice and close the case. Oftentimes, rapes are not taken seriously unless the victim/survivor is physically injured as well. Writer/director Emerald Fennell explained why she went with the ending to HuffPost:
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.
As the sequence with the college dean showcases, it was dismissed as a “he said, she said” situation, without evidence to pursue the case forward because Monroe denied it. The college forgot about the incident and Monroe lived a life without consequences, chalking up the crime as something he did as a kid when he didn’t know any better. Nina, on the other hand, was so adversely affected by her rape that she had to drop out of medical school and it also led to her implied suicide. Her best friend was also deeply affected by Nina’s death to the point of going to great lengths of finding justice for the situation. In the end, Cassie’s fate is tied irrevocably to Nina. She spent the entire movie coming to terms with the rape and the greater societal implications of the incident, by getting “drunk” each week in hopes a nice guy wouldn’t take the unfortunate opportunity. Yet, someone does week by week for years.
The bitter truth is the system is still in favor of the rapist on a societal scale, and Promising Young Woman chillingly reflects this through its subversive take. If Cassie had lived to see the wedding and expertly taken everyone down it would have skewed more toward revenge fantasy. One of the most clever aspects of it is how the murder itself plays into the “disposable sex worker” trope found in movies such as The Godfather, Heat or American Psycho where a stripper/sex worker is brutally murdered in an inconsequential way in the midst of a male protagonist’s other violent pursuits. Cassie becomes a victim to this trope (often pushed aside as a comedic moment in some instances in the past), but this time the trope becomes central to the film using it.
The Loose Ends
Before we go, I do want to touch on a couple of loose ends about the dark twist that has been made in light of its release. Far above my own opinions about this movie, it’s a great discussion piece that is being talked amongst the sexual assault and rape survivor/victims as well. In Roger Ebert’s piece, Mary Beth McAndrews said this about the conclusion of the film:
Fennell undermines any semblance of empowerment she built up for Cassie by brutally murdering her. All the film does is remind the audience that women’s trauma is nothing and that trying to heal from trauma can only end with death and a winky face. I don’t want to smile and cheer for Cassie. I want to lay on the floor and cry as I remember that I mean nothing in the eyes of my abuser and his friends. I am as insignificant as Cassie’s ashes blowing in the wind. The feeling that there is no hope for a new beginning, no way for me to move on from my trauma. All that lies ahead is suffering.
I think it’s an extremely valid and important point she’s making here, and I think when we discuss this film it’s key to recognize how personal this film and its issues could be to us, depending on one’s experiences with the issue. As I’ve alluded to and Emerald Fennell mentioned in her explanation, we’d like nothing more than to have seen Cassie make it out the other side of the situation and have a sweet revenge tale. It will not work for those of us hoping for the movie to provide some kind of cathartic and empowering release for a stark and depressing reality about rape culture. We’ll end with one more quote from Fennell via Collider about the dark twist:
And I think that there was, for me certainly, the other ending would have been Cassie murders everyone and then goes to jail for the rest of her life and lives with that horror. There was no happy ending to this movie. All there is, is somebody who needs to show people, to deliver justice. And she does do that, but at a very, very heavy price. I didn't believe that a woman of Cassie's size would be able to physically overpower a very strong man. All of that stuff. And it was important that it interrogated the myth of the revenge journey.
Now it’s your turn. What did you think of the ending of Promising Young Woman? Did the dark twist work for you? Vote in the poll below and check out CinemaBlend’s interview with Emerald Fennell as well.