What The Men In 'Promising Young Woman' Teach Us All About The Dangers Of Toxic 'Nice Guys'

Photo: FilmNation
Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham in Promising Young Woman

As she stumbles, out of a bar, seemingly wasted, in "Promising Young Woman," Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is being held up by Paul (Sam Richardson), a laughable kind of guy who wears a fedora, lives with his mom, and attempts to make the fall-down drunk lady on his arm walk home with him to avoid surge pricing on an Uber.

Paul is a joke. Cassie laughs at Paul. We, the audience, laugh at Paul.

It's what we are seemingly intended to do judging by the choice to cast comedian Richardson, best known for his role as the affable, naive eventual President of the United States Richard Splett on HBO's "Veep," in the role.

Richardson isn't someone you would see as a threat. He's silly.

And the same is true for the other actors cast in the freshly minted Oscar-winner for Best Original Screenplay, including comedian Bo Burnham, Adam Brody (Seth Cohen from "The OC"), Max Greenfield (Schmidt from "New Girl"), Chris Lowell (Piz from "Veronica Mars"), and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin from "Superbad").

The casting of familiar "nice guy" actors in "Promising Young Woman" serves as an important lesson and reminder for us all.

Cassie should be safe with Paul, we assume, and with all of these men, as should we, the women in the audience, be when alone with similar real-life "nice guys."

We continue to assume this is true, even as we know they fully intend to rape her intoxicated body.

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Spoilers to follow for "Promising Young Woman."

Throughout the film, Cassie feigns being drunk, knowing a "nice guy" will offer to take her home — coming to her aid only to take her to his place and attempt to rape her once she's passed out.

That's when she snaps to sobriety, striking fear into her would-be attacker, who feels betrayed by her actions.

"Why don't you take your crazy somewhere else? You're not even that hot," Paul says upon learning she's sober.

"You're not exactly dropping panties yourself, Paul," Cassie responds. "When was the last time you scored in the daylight?"

When he attempts to threaten her, she strikes back, scaring him, sending him off in tears. "Why do you guys have to ruin everything?!"

Cassie, ever in control, genuinely makes the viewer feel like she's got this.

She's safe calling out these weak men who attempt physical dominance over vulnerable women, backing down in terror the second they realize she isn't as vulnerable as they hoped.

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In a lot of ways, this is what makes watching "Promising Young Woman" a cathartic experience.

We get to watch a cool woman, one whose voice never raises, as she — without emotion — stands up to these men who fully intended to rape her, reducing them to whimpering, cowering children as she does.

That is, until it stops feeling like we're watching a movie entirely and begins to feel every bit the real experience we know life as a woman can be.

The reason Cassie does what she does is to avenge her best friend, Nina, who died by suicide after she was raped at a party by Al Monroe (Lowell).

When Cassie learns Al is getting married soon and having his bachelor party, thrown by Joe (Greenfield), she dresses up as a stripper nurse to confront her friend's attacker.

Al, handcuffed to the bed by Cassie, whines, begs and refuses to take blame, while Cassie remains characteristically unemotional.

Then, getting one arm free, he proceeds to — for a long, uninterrupted scene — to smother her with a pillow until she dies, the whole time telling her it's her "f***ing fault."

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The next day, Joe comes upstairs and finds Al and Cassie.

The tone goes from devastating and terrifying to a buddy comedy of sorts wherein he assures Al he is entirely without blame, and the two go off and burn Cassie's body, destroying the evidence.

Just a couple of fun, nice guys.

Nice young men whose futures could have been ruined by a rape accusation from Cassie's friend Nina.

Nice gentlemen who, without a moment's hesitation, set a woman's body on fire then went off and had an otherwise lovely wedding.

The danger of the "nice guy" is in an imagined control — the idea that we could totally handle ourselves against a foolish individual.

"Promising Young Woman" reminds us that this just isn't the case.

Even Veronica Mars's goofy boyfriend with the bad haircut can't save us from that.

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Courtney Enlow is Editor of Pop Culture and Good News at YourTango. Her work has appeared at Vanity Fair, Glamour, Pajiba, SYFY FANGRRLS, Bustle, Huffington Post, io9, and others. She is the former co-host of the podcasts Trends Like These and Strong Female Characters.