The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden wants unity and justice. Watching ‘Promising Young Woman’ could help.

Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie in director Emerald Fennell’s "Promising Young Woman." (Focus Features)

President Biden and his administration face a challenging set of philosophical questions. Is the unity he called for in his inaugural address possible without accountability? What divides justice from revenge? And who gets to define what justice is?

Anyone pondering those quandaries might want to watch the unsettling and terrific new movie, “Promising Young Woman.” When the movie debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last year, its treatment of the aftermath of sexual violence placed it firmly within an ongoing, on-screen conversation about the #MeToo movement. But it’s somehow perfect that the movie became available to rent this month as the country confronts an assault on our democracy — and the terrible possibility that the perpetrators of this crime might get away with it.

The “Promising Young Woman” of the title is Cassie, who dropped out of medical school along with her best friend Nina after Nina was raped at a party. Years later, Cassie spends her nights scaring men who hope to take advantage of incapacitated women and her days plotting more elaborate punishments for those she holds responsible for destroying Nina’s life.

In the early going, “Promising Young Woman” suggests that Cassie is righteous, if reckless. Who’s going to sympathize with a finance bro who tries to perform oral sex on a woman who’s telling him no, or a pretentious literary hipster who pushes cocaine on a date, then reacts in exasperation when she seems to pass out? Those men deserve the ugly surprise Cassie gives them when she snaps out of her drunk act to reveal that she’s stone-cold sober, just as surely as the Trump supporters and QAnon cultists who documented their U.S. Capitol insurrection for social media deserve exposure and arrest.

But the parallels between Cassie’s mission and the task before the country run much deeper than the presence of a motley crew who deserve what they have coming. Cassie’s struggle to get her targets to accept her version of reality and to restore the norms she saw shattered resonate deeply with the challenges Americans face today.

In some ways Cassie’s quest is simpler than the one now before us. Cassie and her targets at least agree that there was a party and that Nina was deeply affected by what happened to her there and afterward. Their dispute is about how to interpret those events.

The people who stormed the Capitol and the former president who exhorted them to do it, by contrast, have taken up residence in a baroque fantasy, one in which Donald Trump’s landslide victory was stolen by a vast and nefarious web of conspirators. Those of us who understand that Biden won the election handily and fairly are stuck debating the facts with people who don’t even share our basic sense of how to determine what is true.

And if you can’t get people to agree that a moral crime has been committed, it’s awfully hard to assign appropriate social sanctions to deter that violation from being repeated. Cassie’s targets argue about whether the ways she intends to punish them are proportionate. Compare that with the gulf between those who see the Capitol riot as a violation of democracy’s sacred spaces and those who believe the rioters were mounting a patriotic defense of the democratic process.

Most of all, “Promising Young Woman” encourages the audience to ask what a failure to deliver justice does to people who have been wronged — and what the process of doling out chastisement does to self-appointed avengers. Early in the film, Nina’s mother makes it clear to Cassie that her missions aren’t doing anything to fix a fundamentally irreversible tragedy. “You need to stop this,” the older woman warns. “It isn’t good for any of us.”

“Promising Young Woman” sympathizes with Cassie, but the movie is clear that her desire to make other people feel Nina’s pain does nothing for people like Nina’s mother. Cassie may not be as cruel as the man who raped Nina and those who mocked her friend later, but some of her acts have nothing to do with justice or reconciliation. Her journey is a high-style, slow-motion act of self-destruction — first moral, then literal.

In the real world — unlike in “Promising Young Woman,” where the possibility of justice for Nina is long gone — there is still a chance that the country can hold the people who vandalized our democratic system accountable through normal channels. We should take it. Stigmatizing the process of delivering prompt accountability as divisive or radical is wrong, and it’s short-sighted.

Cassie’s story is a warning about the dangers of revenge. It’s also a devastating portrait of just how damaging a failure to achieve justice can be. The process of reckoning with Jan. 6 may be painful. The damage done by skipping that reckoning would be worse.

Read more:

Alexandra Petri: Goofus and Gallant try unity and healing

Danielle Allen: The four kinds of truth America needs to pursue for reconciliation

Marc A. Thiessen: Three steps Biden can take to restore unity

Timothy Shriver: Many Americans want payback. We need a uniter instead.