Promising Young Woman & The Dissident – Movies with Messages or Propaganda?

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“If you want to send a message, call Western Union,” is a line as old as Hollywood itself. It was repeated in the new movie Mank  to show the cynical nature of the ghouls who run the movie studios. But like all show business adages, there’s some truth to this cliché. As anyone who has sat through an afterschool special can attest, hitting your audience in the head with whatever agenda you wish to push can lead to a severe case of eye rolling. There’s a weird, invisible line between a movie with a message and propaganda, one that the feature Promising Young Woman  crosses with glee.

This new movie that is strangely getting all kinds of awards love, is kind of a reverse version of American Psycho. Instead of portraying a yuppie male who slaughters his victims of seduction after boring them with soliloquies of musical and social commentary, Promising Young Woman focuses on a woman who pretends to get trashed in clubs. Whenever a man takes her home and tries to rape her, which happens multiple times, she reveals her sobriety. Instead of killing her aggressors, she gives them a stern talking to about how what they are doing is bad.

I suppose eschewing the violence that we so often expect from movies, puts an unlikely feminine spin on things. But the problem with this method is every time the protagonist lectures the bad guys about how rape is bad, she is also lecturing the audience.

Somewhere within this deeply, unfunny movie lies an interesting gem for either a comedy or drama. But this movie can’t get out of its own way of making sure you realize all men are evil brutes. Given that we’re the gender that brought you Adolph Hitler, Ted Bundy, and Tom Cruise, it’s a point that’s hard to refute. I just wish Promising Young Woman would have found a more clever and subtle method to get that point across.

Documentaries play by different rules, of course. Moviegoers see nonfiction films to be educated rather than entertained. These audiences are the choir that want to be preached to. The Dissident aims to please them.

You probably don’t recognize the name Jamal Khashoggi by sight, but you probably remember his story. In 2018 the Saudi Arabian journalist walked into a Saudi consulate in Turkey and never stepped out.  The Dissident goes into great detail on how and why the leaders of the Middle Eastern nation wanted Khashoggi silenced and how they went about doing it.

The movie can be dry at times in conveying information, It loses itself when it goes on an overlong tangent explaining the importance of Twitter in Saudi Arabia. But like Promising Young Woman, The Dissident is clear and concise on the thought it wants audiences to leave the movie with. This time it is not that all men are evil oppressors, just the men who rule Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps movies are the real reason nobody uses Western Union any more?

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David Rolland

David Rolland edits The Jitney blog. He is the author of the novel The End of the Century.