Spoilers! All about Carey Mulligan's role in that shocking 'Promising Young Woman' ending

Andrea Mandell, USA TODAY
·4 min read

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen “Promising Young Woman” yet, the following details will totally and completely ruin the ending for you, so be warned.

A trauma tale disguised as a revenge thriller, “Promising Young Woman” (available via video-on-demand platforms) was never going for "happily ever after."

But audiences have been shocked, even split, over the film’s divisive ending in which (and if you haven’t seen the movie, another warning to stop here) …

… Cassie, played with verve by Carey Mulligan, (OK, last warning) ...

... ultimately dies at the hands of her best friend Nina’s rapist, Al (played by Chris Lowell), only to send a checkmate from the grave.

Some may have wanted Cassie to prevail in her ultimate revenge plot. In the film, the character has actualized her grief over her best friend’s PTSD-driven suicide by teaching opportunistic men a lesson, one by one, in bars across her town. Cassie, a onetime star student-turned-medical school dropout, dresses up and then acts wasted, waiting for predators to pounce.

When they get her home, she snaps out of her stupor and demands to know what they intended to do.

Review: Carey Mulligan strikes fear in bad guys' hearts in delightfully wicked 'Promising Young Woman'

“People often with this movie describe her as bait or setting traps," says director Emerald Fennell, who disagrees. "It was really important that she does nothing; she's completely inert. She just goes somewhere and pretends to be drunk. She does nothing else."

But just as Cassie's decided to move on and get a real life of her own, devastation arrives at the realization that her new boyfriend (Bo Burnham) was not only at the scene of Nina's rape but seemingly egged it on at the frat-style party at which it occurred.

Cassie soon puts in motion the final stage of her revenge: She will crash Al’s remote bachelor party dressed as a sexy nurse stripper, drug his groomsmen and teach Al a lesson by handcuffing him to the bed and carving her best friend's name into his chest, branding him as his assault branded Nina until her death.

“She had to be wearing as much armor as possible,” says Mulligan of her character's white nurse costume, candy-colored wig and red pumps. “These people in this house would never in a million years have imagined seeing Cassie like that because at college when she knew all these people, that's not what she looked like. … She uses it like it's her weapon in the room. She has nothing else.”

But as those who have seen the film know, the night doesn’t go her way. Al rips a hand loose from his cuffs. He grabs a pillow. And his might overtakes Cassie’s; he suffocates her under a pillow and the protagonist dies.

'Promising Young Woman': Carey Mulligan is not starring in the revenge movie you expect

Carey Mulligan stars as a clever woman on a quest for vengeance in "Promising Young Woman."
Carey Mulligan stars as a clever woman on a quest for vengeance in "Promising Young Woman."

While it may not be satisfying, it’s in step with what would have happened in real life, says Mulligan. (In the film, the prolonged shot of Cassie suffocating is timed to replicate roughly how long death by this means would actually take.)

“We felt really strongly that when it comes to a moment between these two characters that turns physical, 9.9 times out of 10, it's not going to go your way,” says Mulligan. “So we needed to tell the truth about that.”

Fennell knows the other options were on the table. “Of course, the kind of the fun ending to the movie is the kind of ‘walk away as the place burns down.’ But I just don't know any world where that's ever happened,” says the director. “The only world I know is that if you're a woman in a room with a man and a weapon, the odds are very much stacked against you."

Cassie, too, goes into the testosterone-fueled bachelor party in the woods with her eyes open, says Fennell. “She really hopes to win, but she's also not stupid. And she knows there's a chance she won't. And so she has at least been able to put a contingency plan in place.”

That plan includes mailing evidence to Al’s former, now-repentant power attorney (Alfred Molina), who turns it over to the police. Al is ultimately arrested on his wedding day, as his best man (Max Greenfield) hightails it from the scene. Cassie, from the beyond, triumphs. But she’s still dead.

“I think it's important to see someone who’s done everything right,” says Fennell. “And still not win.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Promising Young Woman': All about that shocking ending (spoilers!)