Promising Woman unsettles the guild!


Perhaps we can tell you why: Yesterday, we told you how much we liked Promising Young Woman, the new film by first-time director Emerald Fennell.

As we noted, we liked it a lot the first time through. We liked it even more the second time around. 

We thought the movie went right to the heart of moral experience. That may be why so many guild members seem to be unsettled, perplexed, by the much-discussed film.

As of yesterday, we didn't realize how many top-end critics disapprove of this movie. We were especially struck by several conversations at Slate involving Dana Stevens, the increasingly silly site's chief film critic.

Stevens is a good person and a thoroughly capable critic. There's no reason why she, or anyone else, has to like this particular film, or any other film. 

That said, Stevens is extremely down on the film. Somewhat oddly, Slate has never reviewed it. 

Slate has done a Gabfest segment about the film, and a long Spoiler Special. In each of these podcasts, Stevens expresses her strongly negative feelings. On Gabfest, she says this:

STEVENS (1/27/21): For the first hour or so of the movie, I really went in wanting to like this movie, liking the idea that it was, you know, a female revenge fantasy with this kind of candy shell and loving Carrie Mulligan’s performance. Really fun to see her play someone who isn’t sweet and earnest, as so many of the characters she plays are. And this character, Cassie, is a really fascinating one. 

But all of that said, I am a "no" on this movie. I am a fairly strong no. And we can get into some of the reasons about why without spoiling the movie, I hope. There is a separate Spoiler Special on Slate about this movie with a conversation with me and Karen Han...where she stands up for it a bit. And, you know, I talk about my reservations, so I don’t want to recapitulate any of that stuff. 

Stevens wanted to like this "female revenge fantasy with this kind of candy shell." At first, she thought it was "really fun" to see Mulligan "play someone who isn’t sweet and earnest."

That's how it was for Stevens at first, but she ended up a fairly strong no. During the Spoiler Special podcast, she went into a bit more detail:

STEVENS (1/22/21): I mean, it’s a pretty misanthropic movie, not just misandrist. It’s definitely down on men. With the exception of her father, Cassie’s father, I don’t think there’s a single male character in this who comes off as like a morally decent person. But there’s also some scenes where women who have been complicit with crimes in the past, and we’ll get to what those were, get called to account. So, I mean, but maybe this gets to part of what I didn’t like about the movie is that as it went on, I felt more and more that the world, the movie's world was shutting down rather than opening up. 

You know that, that in a sense, I mean, Cassie is a character, and the movie tells us this from straight upfront, who can’t let go of the past, who’s obsessed and who’s been damaged so badly that, you know, her world has shut down. And in a way, I felt like the movie performed that same operation on the viewer and lost its energy as it went along. 

For the first half hour, I thought this was going to be sort of an incredible feminist revenge drama. And I was really into the candy colors and the music. And as the story unfolded, I started to feel more and more kind of trapped in its world and manipulated by the movie. 

I feel like the moral universe that it offered was an extremely narrow and bleak and depressing one. And I know it’s about bleak and depressing things, but—well, we’ll get into it. In the end, I felt like this movie had pulled out the rug from under me in a in a cruel and manipulative way, which left me with a sour feeling, even though I think Emerald Fennel is tremendously talented and I’m very curious to see what she does next. And Carey Mulligan really deserves all the praise that she’s gotten for playing this role that’s so different. She always also plays nice people. She tends to play sweet, innocent types because she has a sweet, innocent face. And so getting to see her play, someone who, you know, who had this more embittered, hard shell was was really fascinating.

Again, Stevens thought this was going to be sort of an incredible feminist revenge drama. And not only that—she was really into the candy colors and the music. 

That said, she ended up with a sour feeling by the time the movie was through. She felt like the film  had pulled the rug out from under her in a in a cruel and manipulative way.

Yesterday, reading other reviews, we learned that this is not an unusual reaction. In our view, puzzling reactions appear in many reviews. Critics seem to have a hard time coming to terms with the film's basic content or identifying in any way with the film's main character.

In the lengthy Slate Spoiler Special, it seemed to us that Stevens and Han were reacting to Promising Young Woman as if it was some sort of documentary—perhaps a Dateline broadcast. It seemed to us that they'd been unable to come to terms with its unusual point of view—with the way it "pulls out the rug" from the silly desire for a pleasing, fun feminist revenge fantasy.

For those of you who might want to watch the film, let us offer this: 

Promising Young Woman is a bit of a dreamscape. As we noted yesterday,  its various episodes don't exactly make sense, except within a type of dream-world logic.

(Was that a hitman Cassie hired at one point, then had sent away? Where in the world had she gotten the money to pay him his fee? Also, who was the man she hired to take her drunk former classmate up to a room in that hotel? Why would the classmate have gone to that room? Did that strange event make any sense except in the logic of dream?) 

(How about the episode with the daughter of the med school dean? Could any such events have happened in the real world? Did any part of that revenge fantasy episode make any real-world sense?)

Within that dreamscape, Promising Young Woman is about a moral outrage and the inability or refusal of various people to acknowledge the fact of that outrage. Aside from Cassie herself, only one person is able to care about the moral outrage which has been visited upon Cassie's lifelong best friend, who is no longer living. 

(For what it's worth, that one other person is a man.)

No one else is able to care. The basic outrage of this situation seems to escape a wide range of reviewers. We'll admit that this reminds us of the way our upper-end press corps works.

This film involves a sexual outrage perpetrated on a promising young woman. Within the dreamscape of the film, (almost) no one cares.

Many reviewers have been puzzled by the film's jangled logic. They seem to have wanted a simpler type of revenge fantasy film, one of the Clint Eastwood type.

This film is a bit more complex. This seems to have left reviewers not knowing quite what to say. 

They liked the colors and the songs, but when Cassie starts exacting revenge (if that's actually what she does), they seem inclined to side with the other people in the film, with the people who don't care.

They don't seem inclined to side with the film's other promising young woman, the young woman who very much cares. 

To Stevens, Cassie is "a character...who can’t let go of the past." Later in the Spoiler Special, Stevens complains about "the kind of calcification of this horrible mental state that Cassie has worked herself into." (Did the behavior of the others help her "work herself into" this state?)

For the record, Cassie's best friend was gang-raped in front a group of laughing med school classmates. Traumatized, she dropped out of medical school and eventually took her own life.

The med school administration covered this up. Then and now, the laughing classmates all clammed. 

According to Stevens, Cassie has worked herself into "a horrible mental state" about this. Many critics seem unable to sympathize with the one person in this film who isn't trying to sweep this outrage under a candy-flecked rug.

This film doesn't take place in a real world landscape. None of its episodes make any real sense; these events occur in a dreamscape, a dreamscape which lets us imagine what it might be like to be the only person in a town without pity who cares.

We can't help thinking of the way the mainstream press has behaved over the past twenty years with respect to such matters. 

Starting in 1999, they constantly averted their gaze from the sexism and misogyny of powerful players like Chris Matthews and then Keith Olbermann. (Their behavior was discussed at this site.) 

They didn't say a single word about the sexist savaging of Naomi Wolf (a way of attacking Candidate Gore), about the lunatic criticisms directed at Hillary Clinton, the woman who was said to have reminded our laughing male pundits of their first wives.

In a slightly different branch of the guild, many people knew about Harvey Weinstein, about Matt Lauer, about Charlie Rose, about Mark Halperin. Everybody also knew that they must keep their traps shut. Careers hung in the balance!

The children have always had one major skill—repeating whatever it is the last ten people just said. A few years back, a few brave people finally spoke up and the MeToo movement was born.

Now, they all repeat the standard scripts about such events. "But oh, what kind of love is this / Which goes from bad to worse?"

Emerald Fennell's film doesn't make it easy, or at least not easy enough. It isn't as simple-minded as the candy-colored revenge fantasy fun some critics were hoping to have.

Very few critics seem to know how to react to Fennell's angry prompts. There are no obvious scripts to recite about this unusual film, and this seems to make the pundits feel that they've been betrayed.

We absolutely loved this film. We thought we were watching a rumination in the form of a dreamscape. We thought we were watching a real rumination, not a simple-minded, easy-reader Dateline morality play.

Male pundits' misogyny helped give us Trump. All others knew they must clam!


  1. "This film involves a sexual outrage perpetrated on a promising young woman. Within the dreamscape of the film, (almost) no one cares."

    Sexual outrages are perpetrated on any number of promising young women in our society. It is hard for me to believe that Somerby gives a damn.

    1. Why in heaven’s name would anyone give a damn about what you do or do not believe about Somerby’s beliefs on this or any other subject? It’s a basic critical fallacy that any reader can really know anything about the “real” feelings of any writer. (For the upteenth time, I miss deadrat.)

  2. "This film doesn't take place in a real world landscape. None of its episodes make any real sense; these events occur in a dreamscape, a dreamscape which lets us imagine what it might be like to be the only person in a town without pity who cares."

    Somerby doesn't seem to understand that the dreamscape aspects are a form of distancing from the immediacy of both sexual trauma and the revenge violence (implied or explicit). These are all hard to contemplate and you cannot have a comedy or whatever this film is trying to be, with too much raw emotion surrounding the events, so the technique of the director provides distancing. Meanwhile, Somerby is criticizing people (in and outside the film) for not caring. As if he cares about women's sexual trauma.

    Was Somerby one of the people who cared when Christine Blasey Ford described her trauma? Or did he side with the cover up?

    Easy to care when a dreamscape film in candy colors makes it safe.

  3. If women engage in revenge violence against abusers, then they lose their moral high ground and make it easy for no one to care about what happened to them. They become deserving of their victimization. It sounds to me like that may be one purpose of such a film.

    The woman who made this film was also involved with Killing Eve, the TV show about a woman obsessed with a female psycho killer assassin, who ultimately engages in a seduction of her pursuer. The killer was excused by her abuse, so this seems to be a theme for this movie maker.

    I consider the enactment of revenge by a woman (a real fantasy because this so rarely happens) to be a device for invalidating women's claims, much like the attacks on Blasey-Ford and the women who have come forward against men such as Epstein and Weinstein. This protects men by making them victims of disproportionate vengeful violence.

    I don't believe such revenge fantasies are even much of a thing among women, who are seeking safety and a normal life, freedom to live without fear and restraints, not a desire to get even. Too many women buy into the arguments used to convince them they deserve to be abused. And making this sound like something feminists condone is ridiculous.

    I would prefer to watch dramas about women rescued from abusive situations and helped to recreate their lives. No matter how good the music is and those candy colors (whatever that means). So, I find myself wondering what is going on with the person who would create such a fantasy. And I don't wonder at all why it appeals to Somerby.

  4. Why does Somerby refer to the people who disliked this film as "the Guild"? That makes it sound like these are people who are all taking orders from the same source, people who have banded together for some reason. Actually they are a variety of people who happen to dislike this particular film, but who otherwise have independent opinions.

    For that matter, why wouldn't the people who LIKE the film be The Guild? Is the Guild perhaps only defined as those who disagree with Somerby?

    1. He wants his readers to believe that all liberals think alike, adhering only to Script, and that he alone is an independent thinker.

  5. No one is allowed to disagree with Bob Somerby about a movie.

    What malarkey.

  6. Somerby’s 2500 posts/reviews about “The Shape of Water” did not lead me to trust him as a film critic.

    1. You liked the Shape of Water? That reflects very poorly on your movie taste. The movie was a total piece of shit.

    2. Where does mh say that he liked it?

  7. I really enjoyed and admired the film. And not for its candy-colors. I enjoyed its disturbing complexity and courage. And the fact that when the protagonist was murdered she didn't just magically spring back to life as they do in almost every other movie. If I remember correctly there was some controversy 20 years ago about The Burning Bed, a fairly simple, linear story without complexity.

  8. "We thought we were watching a real rumination, not a simple-minded, easy-reader Dateline morality play."

    What is there to ruminate about when men assault women? Those morality plays seem simple-minded because there is no excuse for such behavior. It doesn't take a revenge fantasy to reach such conclusions.

    Why would the protagonist die at the end? Because a movie cannot portray revenge as morally acceptable. That ending is simple-minded in the extreme.

    It is so male to think that the answer to every problem is to enact some sort of tit-for-tat revenge. Somerby should ruminate on why macho posturing disguised as pseudo-feminism is appealing to him. Such a film is antagonistic to actual feminism, but that doesn't bother Somerby, misogynist that he is.

  9. Wow. Somerby is trying to break a record perseverating on a film he saw. Can’t wait for tomorrow’s installment , let alone next week’s.

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