PARK CITY, Utah, Jan. 30 (UPI) -- In Promising Young Woman, Carey Mulligan plays Cassie, a former medical school student who devotes her life to avenging her classmate Nina, who was raped at school. Mulligan said she needed guidance to portray Cassie's crusade.
It was Killing Eve Season 2 showrunner Emerald Fennell, who wrote and directed Promising Young Woman, who provided that guidance. Mulligan and Fennell spoke this week at a Q&A after the film's Sundance Film Festival premiere.
"She steered me in every direction and pushed me when I wanted to hold back," Mulligan said. "Everything was an ongoing conversation."
Fennell steered away from rape/revenge films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or the samurai classic Lady Snowblood in which the victim retaliates with force. Instead of violence, Cassie cleverly entraps men who pick her up at a club, believing her to be drunk and incapacitated.
"We see a lot of women in revenge thrillers act in a way I don't recognize as a woman," Fennell said. "You just put on some hot pants and get a machete and get 'em. We know it's not true. It's a lie. So I wanted to think about what I might do under these circumstances. I think it would be a lot more existential, more weird than violence."
When those men get Cassie home and start taking advantage of her, she reveals she was alert the whole time and scares them out of potential date rape. Fennell suggested a comedy could involve the same scene with a drunk woman and make her the butt of the joke.
"We see it from some of our favorite films from not long ago and we're like, 'Ha ha ha, women. They do get drunk. They do get so drunk.'" Fennell said. "I guess that's more sinister to me in a funny way, how pervasive it is culturally."
Cassie doesn't only go after Nina's attacker. She also confronts the dean of the school (Connie Britton) who dismissed Nina's case, and their friend Madison (Alison Brie), who blamed Nina for being drunk and promiscuous. Fennell felt the enablers of rape culture were as complicit as the rapist himself.
"I just wanted someone who rejected the culture, rejected the idea of just shut up and put up and get on with it," Fennell said. "I feel very strongly that we see so much of this [in society] and we're not honest about what it is and what it looks like."
Brie was at the Sundance Q&A and agreed that women like Madison are part of the problem.
"Madison kind of represents the female contingent that is part of the societal cover-up of bad behavior by men," Brie said. "I think it's important to recognize it's not only men who can be a part of victim blaming and pointing fingers at what people deem a certain type of women. I think this movie's about having awareness for that sort of thing."
Many rape/revenge films like I Spit On Your Grave or Ms. 45 begin with the rape scene and then show the victim plotting and enacting her revenge. Fennell keeps the rape in Promising Young Woman's backstory.
"I never wanted to show it," Fennell said. "Often in movies like this, we see the incident, and we expect that. I didn't want to see it. I don't think any of us did either."
No character in Promising Young Woman ever says the word "rape" either, not even Cassie. Certainly the rapist, Al Monroe (Chris Lowell), never acknowledges the word when Cassie confronts him. Fennell wanted to illustrate another problem she feels with rape culture: denial of the gravity of the crime.
"I think men like Al don't ever say that word ever, even to deny it," Fennell said. "That's important to me because we had takes where he did say it but I didn't believe it. It's the reluctance to even be in the same room as the R word I think."
Fennell does not want the ending of Promising Young Woman spoiled before audiences get a chance to see it. However, it is safe to reveal that the ending challenges the Hollywood notion of what a happy ending would be for a character like Cassie.
"I guess what I wanted to do was look at catharsis and why things are cathartic," Fennell said. "What I didn't want to do was to make a movie that was a lie, which is that women can overpower a man twice their size. Statistically, that's not true. It's also not common for women to resort to violence at all."
Mulligan considered Fennell's approach to the issue of rape and the notion of revenge "exceptional."
"I got a little bit of insight into what [Cassie's] emotion would be," Mulligan said. "I was just completely in love with her. But, the creation of Cassie, everything was on the page and then everything else was just conversations with Emerald."
Focus Features will release Promising Young Woman on April 17.