Ryan From ‘Promising Young Woman’ Fucked Me Up

Watching Promising Young Woman felt like taking a fork in my fist and then jabbing it into my right temple. The film left me bleeding for days. Even now, over a month after I watched a screener, the image of Cassie holding that cellphone, horror washing over her face, will not leave me alone.

Several people have asked me for my thoughts on Promising Young Woman. I have a lot of opinions about Emerald Fennell’s new thriller, but when I try to put them into words, my prized eloquence falls backward into a black hole of hurt.

I want all of the men in my life to watch Promising Young Woman. I want to sit next to them and catalogue every anxious twitch of their mouths. I am equally petrified of their reactions. What if a man I trust calls Cassie “crazy”? What if a man I love doesn’t get it? After all, how can any man possibly relate to the pain and fear and absolute fucking fury that this movie unleashed in me?

Cassie’s story is full of monstrous men. There are the “nice guys” who pressure her to go home with them and then maneuver her seemingly drunk body however they see fit. There is the man who raped her best friend at a party, and there is the man who filmed it and laughed. Much has been written of these men and the actors perfectly cast to play them—their indie cred and their pink cheeks, their progressive gloss.

No one seems to be writing about the worst man, either because it’s a spoiler or because they don’t know what to do with him. What do we do with Ryan?

Bo Burnham plays Ryan, Cassie’s former classmate from medical school, with goofy, gentle charm. When he bumps into her at the coffee shop where she works, he immediately puts his foot in his mouth and asks why she’s there. In retaliation she spits in his coffee… and then he drinks it while staring directly into her eyes. He debases himself to make up for his rudeness.

This is a good man, the best man.

Ryan goes to great lengths to woo Cassie at the pace she desires. “I can take it slow,” he says. “I can barely move if you like.”

We know the depths of Cassie’s pain, and so we breathe a sigh of relief as she finds a man worthy of her trust. We delight in her delight at dating a truly good person after only knowing scumbags. He patiently allows Cassie’s friend to grill him and he banters through dinner with her parents. He is the only character in the movie who asks her if she is okay, truly.

“I think you’re incredible,” he says, tripping over his words. “I’m- I’m- I think I’m falling in love with you.”

In the midst of so much violent misogyny, Ryan’s kindness feels like a miracle.

And then. And then. Another former grad school friend drops a bomb in Cassie’s lap in the form of an old cellphone. We witness as she watches a recording of her best friend Nina’s rape at a party. The knowledge that her rape was documented on camera is horrifying enough, but then we hear Ryan’s uncomfortable laughter and commentary as the assault happens.

Something inside Cassie breaks as she learns that Ryan was present for her best friend’s assault, and that he did nothing to intervene. This man—who went to such great lengths to go slow with Cassie, to never pressure her, to respect her—this man is also one of those men.

He is a man who laughed.

“I was a kid,” Ryan tells Cassie. “You’ve gotta forgive me. Tell me you forgive me.”

“No,” Cassie says.

How do you recover from the betrayal of a man for whom you carefully let down your guard? In a world full of complicit bystanders and handy excuses—we were just kids, he’s such a good guy—can you really trust any man?

No matter how much vetting we do, no matter how slow we go, no matter how kind they are when they meet our mothers, they all seem to fail us.

God help me, I want to know if my Ryan watched it. When my old friend heard Ryan excuse his friendship with Al, did he think of the parties he went to with my ex, long after he knew how abusive he was to me, a woman he adored? When he saw Cassie’s groundswell of pain as she watched Nina’s rape and heard Ryan’s uncomfortable laughter, did he think of me seeing pictures of him partying with my ex on my Facebook feed? Did he wonder how I felt?

Does he understand my anger now? Does he understand the pain that his betrayal caused me? Or is my ex still promising enough to forgive?

“I really thought for a second it was all going to be okay,” Cassie says before she confronts Ryan.

Promising Young Woman lanced the part of me that worries none of this will ever be okay. That worries all men will disappoint us if we give them the opportunity.

This essay originally appeared on Patreon. To join my Patreon community and read more of my writing about intimacy, relationships and sexual violence, click here.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

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