The Director Of Promising Young Woman Breaks Down That Devastating Twist

Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features.
This story contains spoilers for the ending of Promising Young Woman, in theaters December 25. 
The first draft of Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennell’s glowing, vicious debut feature, ended pretty much how you’d hope it would. After tracking him down to his bachelor party in the woods and posing as a stripper, protagonist Cassie (Carey Mulligan) finally gets revenge on the man who destroyed her best friend. She carves Nina’s into Al’s (Chris Lowell) chest and cuts off his dick, leaving him handcuffed to the bed. It’s a satisfying conclusion to a feminist revenge tale, one that would likely leave the audience with the optimistic notion that women might have a fighting chance of overcoming rape culture
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But the final version Promising Young Woman, in theaters on Christmas Day, closes on a very different note. Cassie does track down Al at his bachelor party, strolls out of her car to an instrumental remix of Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” and drugs his friends so they won’t hear her confront him about the night he raped Nina, who dropped out of school and died by suicide shortly after. But their conversation goes off the rails as soon as she produces a scalpel, and threatens him with it. An altercation ensues, and Al pins Cassie down, suffocating her with a pillow as he yells that this is “all her fault.” Yes, that’s right: The protagonist dies a full 20 minutes before the end of the movie. 
Fennell, who doesn’t commit a single word to paper until she’s done writing the full script in her head, told Refinery29 she tinkered with the ending over and over again, trying to find a more hopeful outcome for her character, to no avail. 
“Once she was in that room, once a weapon is introduced between a man and a woman, it just didn't seem possible that it would go any other way,” she told Refinery29 over Zoom ahead of the film’s release. “It just seemed too easy to say that she would carve Nina’s name into his body and cut his dick off, and then walk out of the cabin in slow motion smoking a cigarette. I wish she could because I wish all of us could. But it's just not true.”
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Having Cassie escape unscathed felt like a betrayal of her own and her friends’ experiences, Fennell added. “I felt like I had an obligation if I was going to make a revenge movie about real women, then I couldn't cop out and let everyone leave thinking it was all fixed. It’s not a nice ending, but [this] isn't nice. This movie is partly an expression of how steep the mountain is, and how boring the climb is, how arduous, and how much easier it would be to just not to just turn around and go back to flat ground.”
The death scene is excruciating to watch. Fennell holds the camera on Al and Cassie, her gaze unrelenting and unwilling to give the audience any relief. Why should we be able to look away? A woman is losing her life. 
Photo: Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb.
Fennell didn’t use stand-ins, so the scene was meticulously choreographed to ensure Mulligan and Lowell’s safety. “My father-in-law is an ex cop, so I asked him how long it would take, roughly, to suffocate someone,” Fennell said. “[He said] two and a half minutes. It was very dangerous, because it’s all in real time, and if something had gone wrong, we wouldn't have known because it would have looked real. So, we had safeguards and codes. We were very safety-conscious.”
“We’re used to seeing violence against women treated in such a public way, but when you see what it really looks like it's distasteful. It should be distasteful,” she added. “The whole point of doing it in real time and pushing in and getting closer was that you shouldn't be able to dismiss or look away from it.”
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Even in death, Cassie is treated as a punchline by the men who have wronged her. When Al’s friend Joe (Max Greenfield) finds him the next morning, still handcuffed to the bed next to the woman he’s murdered, he laughs, joking that a dead stripper is a plot twist straight from a ‘90s movie. And indeed, that casualness with which so many of our most beloved love stories treat potential violence against women is part of what Fennell wanted to subvert with her film
Her direction to Adam Brody, who appears early on in the film as a man who picks up Cassie at a bar and brings her home, only to have the fright of his life when she suddenly turns out not to be drunk, was to think of himself as the protagonist in a rom-com. 
“That is the beginning of a lot of movies,” she said. “Women in general are just bodies. And in movies like this, they're bodies that don't have lines. You notice that actually the guys are having a romantic comedy with themselves. That's partly what [Cassie’s] trap is. She's completely inert in these scenes and the men just create the romance in their head because it justifies what they're going to do.”
In fact, Cassie has to literally lose her body, the ultimate male gaze symbol for femininity, in order to finally get the revenge she craves. Conscious that something might happen to her, she takes the time to have a package containing the identity of Nina’s rapist and a note with her location and instructions to call the police if she doesn’t return, delivered to a lawyer (Alfred Molina). The final scene of the film is of Al being arrested at his own wedding, and led away in handcuffs. 
But what if Cassie hadn’t had a contingency plan? Part of what makes Promising Young Woman so viscerally uncomfortable is that it challenges the viewer to rethink old assumptions. Cassie may be the hero in this particular narrative — Fennell calls her “an avenging angel” — but how many times have we laughed off a similar character who was simply framed as hysterical or obsessive? How easy would it have been for Al and Joe to keep on telling the story about the crazy girl from med school who dressed as a stripper and tried to blame them for her problems?
“In a Fatal Attraction movie, she's psycho,” Fennell said. “[Promising Young Woman] is playing on all these tropes. We see how it’s not just [about] the action that’s in the movie. It’s the aftermath. It’s how people cover it up. It’s how people rewrite things.”

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