Why the Upsetting End of 'Promising Young Woman' Has Been So Polarizing

Writer-director Emerald Fennell says her shocking choice was the only way her film really could have ended.

promising young woman, carey mulligan, rainbow wig nurse
Focus Features
Focus Features

This post contains spoilers for Promising Young Woman.

Emerald Fennell, the writer-director of Promising Young Woman, didn't want to have her heroine die at the end of the movie. But as she was writing the climactic scene where Carey Mulligan's Cassie goes to the bachelor party of the man who raped her best friend in med school, Fennell realized having the protagonist die was her only option. "I think people call this film 'provocative,' which I understand, but provocative kind of implies you've deliberately thrown a bomb into something," Fennell says. "I actually started writing the scene hoping it would have the sort of badass ending that we all wanted, but the truth was the moment she was in that cabin, the moment there was a knife in there, there's no way it could have ended any other way."

Cassie goes to the cabin in sexy nurse drag, intending to brand Al Monroe (Chris Lowell), the attacker, with her friend Nina's name. She handcuffs him to the bed, but he breaks free and strangles her to death with a pillow. In the morning, he and his friend burn her body. Cassie does get something of a last laugh: She's planned for this possibility and has orchestrated Al's exposure and arrest for her murder from beyond the grave. Still, it's a conclusion that adds another haunting, and admittedly controversial, layer to Fennell's tale, which offers a take on revenge that deliberately undermines what audiences have come to expect from that kind of narrative. 

When the movie opens, former med student Cassie has been living with her parents working at a coffee shop and using her nights to teach assholes a lesson. She goes to bars, pretends to be wasted, and allows a guy to take her home. Just when the supposedly "nice" guy is about to go too far, she confronts them, completely sober, to make them consider their actions. Despite what the trailers imply and what Fennell herself toys around with in her imagery, Cassie is not killing these dudes. She's schooling them.

"I wanted to make a movie about female rage and try and make a revenge movie with a female protagonist that actually felt rare to me," Fennell says. "It's so rare that women resort to violence. It's not really the thing. And also the reason that when they do things go wrong, as they do in this movie, it's not realistic. Of course, it's very cathartic and I love fucking seeing women, like, cut people up. Don't get me wrong. I'm also a lunatic like everyone else, but it's not really real." She wanted to address the "raunch culture" she grew up in, where entertainment frequently featured men sleeping with women who were incapacitated. (Fennell didn't want to name names but some examples include: Sixteen Candles and Knocked Up.)

But Fennell also had designs to make a romantic comedy, which is where the plot gets more complicated. Cassie has settled into her solitary existence when her old classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham) walks into the shop where she works. She spits in his coffee and he continues to pursue her. Ryan's presence brings back painful memories of Nina and their school days, but he also breaks down her defenses. In arguably the most talked about scene Cassie and Ryan dance in a pharmacy to Paris Hilton's "Stars Are Blind," one of Fennell's canny uses of pop culture that has been branded as "girly" over time.

"It's a good metaphor for what the movie is doing aesthetically, which is taking this thing that has been written off as flimsy and girly and showing that no, these aesthetics are really deep and meaningful," Burnham says. "A lyric like, 'even though the stars are blind,' that's like some chilling T.S. Eliot shit. That's like crazy deep if you actually think about it." (Burnham notes that he and Mulligan were "sweating out of embarrassment" filming the actual scene.) 

chris lowell promising young woman
Chris Lowell as 'Al Monroe' | Focus Features

Even unintentionally, Fennell subverts expectations in almost every aspect of Promising Young Woman. To play the men on screen, she cast comedy actors who are known for being lovable, including Burnham, The O.C.'s Adam Brody, New Girl's Max Greenfield, and Veronica Mars' Chris Lowell. "It's only when it's the dreamboat sweetie who did something fucked up at a party, where everyone goes, 'yeah, but she is…'" Fennell says. "That's the conversation." Burnham hadn't made the connection initially, but quickly realized the successful meta element to his and his co-star's roles. "I think that type of guy, the comedic guy, is viewed usually culturally in film is the safe one, he is the good one," he says. "And I think the last few years certainly have borne out that comedians are not a safe space for women." 

It's realizing Ryan's complicity in Nina's rape—he's caught on a tape watching it happen and not stopping it—that sends Cassie spiraling. (Burnham explains he played it as if Ryan "genuinely" didn't remember the incident, "which I think is actually kind of worse," he says.) But Fennell is insistent that Cassie does not see her visit to Al's bachelor party as a suicide mission, no matter how meticulously she may have prepared for her demise. "I think it's important that she's not martyring herself," Fennell explains, adding that her vision does get clouded by her own rage. "It's impossible for her to stay clear-headed. That's an important message in general about revenge. When you're furious, you can't see clearly." 

The grim ending has become a litmus test for viewers: For some, it ruins what comes before; for others, it improves it. There are those who find it perfect. "It's a little bit of a Rorschach or a mood ring," Burnham says. "It really is so fraught and heavy. But then I've also felt cathartic when I've watched it. I've also felt sick. It's a lot." 

Regardless of what you make if it, it's a gut punch, especially when moviegoers have been trained to expect go-girl empowerment from their feminist entertainment. But that's not what is on Fennell's mind. For as candy-colored and heightened as Promising Young Woman is, Fennell is interested in portraying the unfortunate reality of what happens in a room with a man and a woman and a weapon.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.