I would have sworn that my last suicide attempt would have worked.
It was surefire. I had it planned out perfectly.
I pulled off my plans perfectly.
I was alone in what was then a Kroger parking lot. They were closed. The parking lot was relatively empty and I was parked far away from anyone else. I was suicidal, not homicidal.
I was serious, or at least I thought I was at the time.
I climbed into the back seat. I doused myself and my car in gasoline.
I took a lighter. I lit it. I put the flame up, quite literally, to the gasoline.
I prayed. I waited.
There are life experiences that alter your entire existence. There are life experiences that can take even the most promising human being and send them on a downward spiral into an entirely different existence.
By the time I was sitting in that doused 76' Camaro waiting on what I believed to be my inevitable demise, I'd already lived through enough traumas to more than fill a lifetime. The clincher was certainly not my disability. It wasn't really even my extensive history of childhood sexual violence. It had very little to do with the fact that I had just lost my home and was living in that 76' Camaro.
Nope. It was the death by suicide of my wife, a death that not only ended my less than one year marriage and took the life of my newborn daughter but shattered my already fragile healing journey and affirmed every negative old tape I had.
I'd always believed I could not be loved. The suicide of my wife proved it.
My story has very little to do with the story that unfolds in writer/director Emerald Fennell's risk-taking, culturally attuned Promising Young Woman, the story of a young woman, Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a once promising medical student on her path to success until she wasn't anymore. We meet her alone in a nightclub, an attractive woman with a nightclub swagger and a put-on air of vulnerability. She's on the verge of intoxication, possibly drugged. It's the kind of scenario that doesn't just hint of tragedy but practically screams it. There's a group of guys, of course. One offers her a ride home, though he takes a detour to his home where he does what we all know he's going to do and tries to take advantage of the situation.
Suddenly, the Cassie we met is nowhere to be found replaced by an alert, oriented, and equipped to take her would-be perpetrator to task.
This is not the first time Cassie has been in this scenario.
It won't be the last.
It would be easy to dismiss Promising Young Woman as a revenge thriller, admittedly one with a healthy dose of dark humor that dances the border of crass and seems to constantly threaten to cross a line that may not even exist.
Promising Young Woman is more, practically a Shakespearean tragedy of sorts set inside a very real contemporary world where bad things happen to good people and where the good guys don't always win. It's a dark film, yet it's an entertaining film that practically dares you to be entertained.
Cassie has practically made a hobby out of going home with seemingly nice guys who, in the end, have a habit of at least trying to do not particularly nice things. Fennell's script never lets us forget that these seemingly good guys aren't particularly good. However, in what may prove to be the film's more controversial choices, Fennell also never lets us forget that there's something devastatingly wrong with Cassie as she lives her life in a wicked spiral of self-injurious choices and risk-taking behaviors largely fueled by the years-before sexual assault of her best friend and that friend's eventual death by suicide.
Cassie's never moved on. She can't. She's never forgiven the perpetrator. She's never forgiven the system that allowed it to happen and that quickly enabled the perpetrator.
She's never forgiven herself. She's seeking some sort of redemption that she doesn't actually believe in and that, deep down, she knows will never come.
Cassie exudes an attractive confidence and intelligence, yet she's shut herself off from the world save for her day gig as a barista at a local coffeeshop. She's brimming with a quiet rage that can't be stilled and a grief that can't be soothed.
Yet, we love her. We can't help but love her.
Cassie is that friend we all have. You know the one. It's the friend who's had more than their fair share of crap and every time you look at them you just think to yourself "I so badly want you to be happy."
We so badly want for Cassie to be happy.
Cassie simply can't move on, not even when her friend's mother, played to perfection by Molly Shannon, practically begs her to move on.
Then, she meets Ryan (Bo Burnham). Ryan, it would seem, is a genuinely good guy.
Oh, yeah. Until he's not.
The way that Fennell draws out this relationship is seductive and engaging and jarringly entertaining. Even with Ryan's flaws, we start to believe maybe Cassie's going to get the happy ending she deserves and that we want her to have.
Burnham plays this all pitch perfect. For a few fleeting moments, you might even think you've stumbled into (500) Days of Summer.
Promising Young Woman is a remarkable ensemble film. Fennell has cast some of Hollywood's good guys to play guys we're supposed to believe are good and one, in fact, who shows potential for genuinely being good. Actors like Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Adam Brody start us off with that sense of goodness because they damn near always play good guys.
We like them.
The real revelation here, of course, is Carey Mulligan. Mulligan's performance here is revelatory and easily one of the year's best. It's a disciplined, intuitive performance that takes risks and constantly dances on the edge. Mulligan is no doubt one of the truly gifted actresses of our time and this may very well be her best work to date. Truthfully, I was in awe.
Promising Young Woman also boldly announces a visionary new filmmaker in Emerald Fennell, whose work here is equally intuitive and honest and filled with integrity to such a degree that it's disturbing. Somehow, Fennell's script takes us into dark comedy that feels like truth all the way through an ending that feels necessary and real and complex and thought-provoking and will resonate with some and piss off others.
I was raised in a home that believed "You reap what you sow," but that's simply not always true. Sometimes, you sow goodness and reap evil. Sometimes, there is justice and sometimes there's not. Sometimes, good wins. Sometimes, good is sacrificed for a greater good. Sometimes, those traumas that occur in life change the course of our existence and sometimes they just plain destroy us.
I remember climbing out of my car in that Kroger parking lot, a 76' Camaro now ruined by the unmistakeable smell of gasoline and self-destructive tendencies that would take at least a couple more years to subside. I looked up. Almost unbelievably, I saw a friend standing by my car whom I hadn't called and hadn't reached out to and hadn't even imagined could possibly be there. She offered me a place to stay. A job. A little understanding.
Life didn't change magically, of course. I never married again, at least partly fueled by my own fears of a repeat. I would never have another child. For years, I would keep myself closed off from the world as survivor's guilt and years of trauma had their way with me.
I suppose you could say my ending has been different, though some days I wonder.
Some days I wonder.
It helps, at least for me, that I decided years ago that happiness is not the goal. The goal is to live a meaningful life and, somehow despite everything, that is something I've managed to achieve. I've turned my own life, I'd dare say, into a dark comedy of sorts.
And, much to my surprise, life has become rather promising.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic