‘It was the only ending for me’: The finale of ‘Promising Young Woman’ explained
The feature debut from writer-director Emerald Fennell, “Promising Young Woman” seems designed to spur on uncomfortable post-movie conversations and think pieces as it continually destabilizes audiences. With a dazzling and electrifying lead performance by Carey Mulligan, the story follows a young woman named Cassandra who is traumatized by the death of her best friend and so seeks revenge against anyone she sees as complicit, which includes the entire culture that led to her friend’s debasement and demise.
The movie was initially scheduled to be released by Focus Features in the spring — having first premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival — but those plans were derailed by the pandemic. Finally opening in theaters on Christmas, it now comes to premium VOD on Friday, reaching its widest possible audience yet as it also builds a steady momentum in the ongoing awards season.
Part of Fennell’s strategy is to keep audiences on their toes as the ground constantly shifts when Cassandra, who goes by Cassie, launches a plan that puts her in ever-increasing danger. Even many people who are ostensible fans of the movie are nevertheless thrown by its final moments as a disorienting series of events unfold.
In recent interviews, Fennell and Mulligan, along with costar Bo Burnham, talked candidly about that ending.
Warning: Spoilers for the ending of “Promising Young Woman” follow.
In the film, Cassie goes to the bachelor party of Al Monroe (Chris Lowell), who raped her best friend Nina when they were all in medical school, which led to Nina’s eventual suicide. Posing as a stripper, Cassie gets herself alone in a room with Al, handcuffs him to a bed and plans to carve “Nina” into his chest with a scalpel. He gets the upper hand and smothers her with a pillow, later burning her body in the woods.
But she had already sent incriminating evidence to a lawyer, and so Al is arrested during his wedding reception as Cassie’s former boyfriend Ryan (Burnham) receives one last timed text message from Cassie.
After audiences are left reeling by Cassie’s death, they must grapple with the final beat of her revenge from beyond the grave.
”It was the only ending for me,” Fennell said. “I mean, I don’t want to put people off, I didn’t do it as a kind of shocking thing. It just felt like it was the only possible resolution for me.”
Every five pages it completely wrongfooted me and everything I thought I knew, I didn’t know. But I was not expecting it to end like that.
Carey Mulligan on her first time reading the script to ‘Promising Young Woman’
Mulligan recalled her first time reading the script.
“I was surprised,” Mulligan said of the ending. “But what was so great about this script is that I didn’t see any of it. I’m used to reading scripts where I go like, ‘Oh, I know where this is going. I just know what’s going to happen.’ And every five pages it completely wrongfooted me and everything I thought I knew, I didn’t know. But I was not expecting it to end like that.”
Fennell further explained how she found the ending, having originally planned on something more expected.
“Of course when I first started writing it ... I, like every person in the audience, wanted it to end with her walking away with a burning cabin behind her and sirens in the distance. But then I just got in the room and it just didn’t seem possible,” Fennell said.
“It Just didn’t seem real at all. It seemed completely impossible and it seemed like a lie,” she added. “And I think it was really important that this whole movie is taking those tropes of the revenge thriller and hopefully sort of undercutting them or subverting them all. And I think that really what we want from a movie like this is for her to cut off his balls and set him on fire — but then you leave and you never think about it again because suddenly you’re in movie-land.
“If you’re honest, it felt important to me that the moment that violence, the moment that a weapon was introduced, it was going to get turned on her,” Fennell said. “There’s a reason women don’t do what we see in movies like this, which is put on a dress and get out an AK-47. There are so many reasons why women don’t, but they just don’t. And so it seemed to me that if I was in a room in a house full of men and as teeny as Carey is, there’s just no way.”
It’s easy to see Cassie’s final mission, going to that secluded cabin full of men, as one she knew she wouldn’t come back from. Yet Mulligan did not see Cassie’s death as the inevitable conclusion of her actions.
“I think the moment that she goes to the cabin, it’s not a suicide mission,” added Mulligan. “She puts out a backup plan, should things go wrong. But I think her hope is that things would go the way that she wants them to, and that this guy will forever have this thing on his stomach that says ‘Nina’ and that he’ll never be able to tell anyone why or what happened. I think that’s her plan.
“It’s definitely not a death wish. However, I think she’s become cavalier with her life,” said Mulligan. “There’s a strong chance that things go wrong, but she’s not blinded with rage and suicidal. I think the road has taken her this far and she has to see it through.”
Fennell agreed that Cassie was not on some sort of suicidal death trip.
“No, no, no, definitely not,” Fennell said. “It’s sort of up for people to decide, but for me that’s absolutely not who she is. She’s never done anything like that in this movie. But she’s also wise enough to know that the odds are against her and she’s furious enough and tired enough to take the risk. And I think that Al Monroe is the end of the road for her either way. And I think that made sense.
“I believed everything she does is kind of wicked and a sort of wicked joke,” Fennell said. “And it felt like it would make sense that she would make sure that all of the texts arrived during the wedding. It sort of felt at least like some small justice was afforded.”
Even as she knew the shock of Cassie’s death would upset and even lose some viewers, for Fennell, any other ending to the script didn’t feel right.
“I think everyone was a bit surprised when I handed it in,” Fennell said, “but then what was so great was when people came on board for the movie, they came on board because of that, because it wasn’t something they’d seen before. It’s one of those things, where it either feels real to you or it’s just not your cup of tea. I think some people just find it too harrowing or whatever, or they just disagree with it fundamentally.
“But I think for everyone who joined it, they really kind of understood it on quite a sort of deep kind of physical level,” Fennell said. “And in terms of the double ending ... it felt too cruel to leave it with [burning the body], which was something that probably — had I been left to my own devices — I might have done. But it felt too awful and also felt unlikely. She’s so diligent, she’s so obsessed, so detail-oriented. I couldn’t believe that she wouldn’t have made a plan for if things went wrong.”
Even still, the conclusion leaves some unanswered questions. In the film’s final scene, as police raid the wedding party to arrest Al, and his best friend and accomplice Joe (Max Greenfield) runs off into the woods, Ryan receives a pre-timed text message from Cassie. He witnessed Nina’s rape along with others and did not report it and also subsequently lied to police about Cassie’s whereabouts. Will he be arrested too?
“I think [Emerald] very much intentionally leaves that open because the legal system doesn’t have an answer for Ryan, there isn’t a precedent for what do you do with just like the outer rings of complacency in something like this?” said Burnham. “And I think that’s the question we want the audience to be asking, ‘What do you do with him? Should they arrest him?’ I would guess that the sort of legal precedent seems to be, I bet, he will get away with it. He’ll legally get away with it, there won’t be legal repercussions, but Cassie has at least spread the word.”
In another of the film’s many enigmatic touches, Cassie is seen numerous times writing in a notebook, making hashmarks in different colored ink, after her nighttime excursions to scare men into not sexually assaulting vulnerable women. Having allowed these men to pick her up in bars and nightclubs when they think she is intoxicated and vulnerable, she eventually reveals herself to be very much sober and alert. But just how far her scheme goes, whether she ever harms any of them or what exactly the different colors of ink mean isn’t answered.
“It’s just her record,” said Mulligan. “I think the colors don’t really equate to anything. It’s just her quite high school way of keeping track. And I think a way that kind of pleasantly trivializes it for her because it’s not the fact that she’s writing it in a sort of high school notebook and ticking people off. Maybe in the moments where she feels out of control and like she doesn’t know what she’s doing, when she feels like she’s been doing this for too long, it makes it feel like less of a real-world event, it feels more like a very kind of private, almost adolescent endeavor in a way.”
As for Fennell’s thoughts on that notebook and its meaning?
“Never. I’ll never tell,” she said with a hearty laugh. “I mean, I know for myself, but I think that’s for everyone else to decide. Because that’s the thing, I don’t even think she even knows what she’s capable of most of the time. And you see that quite a lot in this movie, so, it really could be anything.”
Inside the business of entertainment
The Wide Shot brings you news, analysis and insights on everything from streaming wars to production — and what it all means for the future.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.