Repair of small engines and Promising young woman are two grim tales of revenge that follow the loved ones of a sexual assault victim. Although these two films are inspired by the same type of tragedy, they present very different approaches to the subject of assault and rape.
Featuring Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham, Promising young woman is a film masterfully thought out by Emerald Fennell about a young woman’s inexorable obsession with revenge. Cassie (Mulligan) loses her best friend to suicide after being raped at a college party. As a method to protect other women from the same fate, Cassie scares men into not taking advantage of drunken women in bars with an elaborate weekly act. However, after reconnecting with someone from her school days, Cassie’s quest intensifies with a new goal. She feels that she and she alone must avenge the horrific and untimely death of her best friend by making everyone pay for how they prevented Nina from finding justice while she was alive.
Repair of small engines is deceptively tender at first. The main character, Frank (John Pollono), slowly rebuilds his life after a stint in prison and tries to connect with his daughter before she goes to college. Much of the story revolves around rekindling a friendship with the men closest to her life (Jon Berntal, Shea Whigham) after a fall. The events of this film dwell on his relationships before taking a quick turn. He invited a young man to his boys’ night out with the intention of murdering him, an elaborate revenge plot he concocted after discovering that this man had coerced his daughter into sending nude photos. He then went public with them, but not before intimidating her for appearing in the photos. After a suicide attempt, Crystal (ciara bravo) is in a coma while her father tracks down the man who dragged her into this horrible scenario.
Two very different revenge stories
These films take radically different viewpoints to convey similar messages and themes. Cassie’s character’s vigilant justice is rooted in the fear that as another woman she would have shared the same fate as her late friend. She flips the script of constantly feeling like prey in the setting of a crowded club or bar, places where women are regularly told not to drink too much, watch what they’re wearing or not be left unattended. Cassie intentionally puts herself in danger to subvert this idea that women are solely responsible for avoiding assault. She and her best friend Nina shared the same social conditioning, were steeped in the same victim-blaming culture, and ultimately lived with the same fear of being overpowered in a dangerous situation. This story of anger, grief and revenge resonates deeply when told from a woman’s perspective. Fennell articulates a cry of empathy and solidarity that has resonated for decades.
Frank and his friends Swaino and Packie unabashedly engage in so many traits that cause toxic masculinity. They get into public fights and fabricate or embellish stories about their sexual conquests; they essentially exist in a vacuum of unchecked aggression, homophobia, misogyny and chauvinism. They undoubtedly benefit from the culture of machismo which allows them to swing their egos around Mach Vegas to return to the garage and regale their friends with stories of their triumph. These men suddenly come face to face with a younger, more privileged version of their species, and it’s a sobering experience for them.
The parallels the writer, director and star Pollono draw between the smug Chad (Spencer House) and the men in the group are shrewd. The scene where Chad tells the men about his scheme to get a young girl to send him nude photos tells the audience everything they need to know about the overall message of this movie. The men, Swaino in particular, are pretty engrossed in the grueling details of Chad’s story, even when he nonchalantly includes that he’s trying to force this girl into a sex act while she’s passed out. They agree he must have needed his friends’ input when justifying why his network of frat brothers circulated his nude photos. When they chanted her demeaning nickname over and over until she ran away from home, Swaino replied that “young girls think everything is the end of the world.” The men are obviously complicit in their role in Chrystal’s suicide attempt, and they see no problem. in their behavior until they find out who the girl in Chad’s story really is. Interestingly, the two films intersect with this theme.
As Cassie tells the dean of her school who ignored Nina’s rape report, “I guess it’s different when it’s someone you love.”
Both Cassie and Frank use revenge in this film as a way to regain control of a situation that has left them heartbroken and helpless. When Cassie and Frank can’t protect their loved ones from harm, they seek harsh ways to restore balance to their understanding of good and evil. Extreme measures to match equally heinous acts.
Extreme measures to deal with heinous acts
Cassie targets each player in Nina’s Hellish Experiment one by one. Her own personal development and relationships have all been put on hold indefinitely until she feels she has had enough impact with her acts of revenge to make her own life worth living again. Judging by the endless amount of counts in her scorecard, she will never reach that magic lag number; it is infinite.
During her last encounter with the man who raped Nina, Cassie recounts how she dropped out of school to take care of her best friend. Despite all her efforts and sacrifices, she couldn’t keep Nina with her, and now she feels like she’s losing her again when she faces those who wronged her and they don’t even remember of his name. She is powerless to keep Nina’s memory alive just as she was powerless to prevent her from committing suicide. She embarks on a never-ending mission to regain that power every time she stops a “good guy” from bringing a drunk girl from the bar or makes one of Nina’s adversaries see the error of her ways.
Frank admits he struggles to understand how young people behave in this new technological era. Crystal and Chad were texting under his nose, nude photos were being sent under his roof, and he was none the wiser and unable to stop her. The precision with which he orchestrates his plan to kill Chad speaks to his obsession and the time he spent during the last three months of Crystal’s coma going over the details of this tragedy in his head.
Another aspect of Frank’s blatant revenge plot is to make up for the grave mistake he made when Crystal came to him with her confession. In a flashback, it is revealed that Crystal told her father what Chad had done to her, and in response, Frank’s instinct is to blame her. His reaction is a prime example of the aforementioned culture of victim-blaming and unchecked misogyny. He instills in his daughter’s mind that “she’s supposed to be smarter than that.” He also compares her to his mother, someone whom the three openly disrespect, disparage, and mock. Of course, in this environment, a struggling young woman would get the message that she has no support and blame herself for the pain she is feeling. Frank takes such drastic action against Chad because he’s trying to absolve himself of the guilt he feels for failing as Crystal’s last line of defense.
Although these two stories and the way they are presented are in strong opposition to each other, they champion similar ideologies. They both comment on how the widespread belief that society should give young men the benefit of the doubt is confirmed by the institutions they enjoy. Chad is in constant contact with powerful lawyers and “men who run the world” through his father’s law firm. Nina’s rapist was protected by their medical school when they chose to protect her bright future over his.
When placed side by side, the films highlight how reputations typically hurt women and benefit men. Nina’s allegations are dismissed because she had a reputation for being promiscuous while Chad’s reputation makes him feel like he is safe from being held responsible. In the end, it’s only his fear of losing that stellar reputation that allows Frank and his gang to walk away from their haphazard plot without repercussions. By approaching the same subject from totally different angles, Promising young woman and Repair of small engines can be seen as two sides of the same coin, creating a broader and more diverse discussion around sexual assault in movies.