A new movie out this week about a woman who drops out of medical school to devote her time to preying on potential sexual predators seeks to challenge audience perceptions by featuring several well-known “nice guy” actors as possible rapists.
(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
“Promising Young Woman'' stars Carey Mulligan as Cassandra Thomas, a woman who had a prosperous career ahead of her. That changed when her best friend Nina was raped then disbelieved about the attack, and died as a result. Following that injustice, Thomas develops a habit of feigning intoxication at bars and clubs to lure in would-be rapists. Pretending to stumble and slur and, at times, faking passing out, she’ll then see who will try to take advantage of the situation.
Once they’ve fallen into her trap, she surprises the men by giving them a piece of her mind. As the film’s protagonist makes clear, such occurrences are definitely not isolated incidents. In the cases where she managed to lure in a possible predator, it’s a self-proclaimed “nice guy” — every single time.
The film’s cast of possible predators is not made of actors known for sleazeball roles, creepy behavior, or a darker public image. They’re played by actors like Christopher Mintz-Plasse, known for the blundering Fogell (aka “McLovin’”) role in the comedy “Superbad” and beloved actor Sam Richardson, known for the fan-favorite role of Richard Splett on “Veep.” As these characters feign sweetness and proclaim they are “nice guys,” Thomas feigns intoxication. But the men then either lash out or crumble when she turns the screws on them and asserts control.
Adored actors Adam Brody (“The OC”) and Max Greenfield (“New Girl”) play men who were involved in the initial rape of Nina, while comedian Bo Burnham ("Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous”) plays their pal who becomes Thomas’ love interest. The three play former med students who are all supposedly outstanding citizens — but their logic and behavior don’t match up to that image.
The decision to cast non-threatening and well-liked actors for these roles was not accidental.
Director Emerald Fennell explained to Entertainment Weekly that “if you’re making a movie about a complicated subject, it’s very easy to talk about this stuff when the people involved are people you don’t like or respect, or you’ve always thought were sleazy.”
She said that by picking actors who are loved and respected, she is pushing audiences to challenge how they react to that archetype. Fennell added that she doesn’t believe in “villains.”
“The ones that people love, people tend to, rather than say, ‘I love this person, it’s a real shame that they do terrible things, but I love them!’ They say, “I love them so it can’t be true.’ It’s endemic,” she said. “It’s a culture we grew up in.”
The first-time feature director, who also portrays Camilla Parker Bowles on “The Crown,” notes that everyone is “complicit” in this kind of behavior. The film is an attempt for people to look inward, instead of claiming goodness or niceness, she suggests, adding that perhaps it’s a chance to admit and examine flaws.
“Every single actor who came on board for this [...] I just said to everyone at the beginning of every day, ‘This is your movie, you’re the delightful protagonist of this movie. You woke up this morning knowing you’re a good person, genuinely believing you’re a good person, and somebody’s going to come into your life and tell you that you’re not,’' Fennell told the magazine. “How would any of us feel about that?”
“Promising Young Woman” hits theaters on Dec. 25.
Get all your true crime news from Oxygen. Coverage of the latest true crime stories and famous cases explained, as well as the best TV shows, movies and podcasts in the genre. And don't miss our own podcast, Martinis & Murder!