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'Saltburn,' 'Promising Young Woman,' and Emerald Fennell's Problem with Endings
The filmmaker's sophomore effort has many of the same problems as its predecessor.
[This post contains spoilers for the film Promising Young Woman. It does NOT contain spoilers for the film Saltburn.]
Emerald Fennell has a problem with endings.
The British filmmaker/novelist/actress has now written and directed two feature films. The first, released in 2020, was Promising Young Woman, for which she won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay; the second, Saltburn, will be released on November 17. Both movies are timely, darkly-comedic thrillers that start promisingly. But they also both eventually veer off-course and crash into endings that are simultaneously dramatically unsatisfying and thematically incongruous.
Which is. Y’know. A real bummer. Because it feels like they’re just a slight re-think away from being truly great films.
Promising Young Woman stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a 30-year old med school dropout who works at a coffee shop, lives with her parents, and has no interest in pursuing romantic relationships. Gradually, we learn that while in med school, Cassie’s best friend, Nina, was raped at a party, with onlookers watching no less. Despite this, the man who assaulted Nina got off scott-free. Nina subsequently fell into a deep depression, and dropped out med school; Cassie soon followed suit in order to help take of her friend. But it wasn’t enough, and Nina eventually died by suicide. Nina’s state of arrested development is part of the fallout from this catastrophic event.
During the course of the story, Cassie confronts the people who failed to help Nina after the assault, including a slut-shaming friend, a dismissive med school dean, and the rapist’s defense attorney. The one who shows remorse is let off the hook, but the others suffer Cassie’s wrath.
After her confrontation with the lawyer, Cassie goes to see Nina’s mother (Molly Shannon), who implores her to finally let Nina go and move on with her life. And for a time, she’s able to do so, even dating and falling in love with one of her med school peers, Ryan (Bo Burnham).
Then Cassie comes into possession of an old phone, on which there is a video of Nina’s rape. Thus, Cassie learns that not only did a whole lot of people stand idly by and watch Nina get assaulted, but that one of those people was Ryan.
Cassie goes to Ryan and uses the video to blackmail him. In exchange for not sending it to everyone Ryan knows, Ryan lets her know where the rapist (Christopher Lowell) is having his bachelor party that weekend. Disguised as a stripper, Cassie infiltrates the party, lures the rapist to the bedroom, and handcuffs him to the bed, with the intention of carving Nina’s name into his torso. Unfortunately, he manages to get free before that happens, and he smothers Cassie with a pillow. In the morning, he and his best man (Max Greenfield) burn Cassie’s body. When the police question Ryan, he omits his final conversation with Cassie, lest the rapist be prosecuted and the video get out.
Originally, that’s where Promising Young Woman was supposed to end. Which, for a movie that is largely about how we live in a rape culture that is more or less designed for men (especially privileged white men) to be able to get away with their crimes, would have been an appropriate conclusion.
But that’s not how the movie actually ends.
This is how the movie actually ends:
This “silver lining” conclusion, in which the men get their comeuppance, reduces the story to being about how justice catches up with everyone in the end - the exact opposite of what the narrative has been telling us up until this last scene. It also reduces the weight of Cassie’s own personal tragedy, waving aside the self-destructive nature of her behavior (a deleted scene, which I’d argue should have been left in the movie, showed Cassie with bruises after an encounter with a male bar patron, suggesting she knows what’s she doing is dangerous but does it anyway).
Put more simply: Giving Promising Young Woman a happy ending recontextualizes the entire story in the worst possible way.
Which brings us to Saltburn.
Fennell’s sophomore effort aims to address class in a not-dissimilar manner from the way Promising Young Woman addressed sexual assault. The story is about an unpopular Oxford student, Oliver (Barry Keoghan), who befriends an ultra-charismatic peer from an insanely rich family, Felix (Jacob Elordi). Oliver’s parents are alcoholics and junkies, and after his father passes away suddenly, Felix invites Oliver to spend the summer at his family’s sprawling estate, Saltburn. Oliver wastes little time ingratiating himself into Felix’s family - but over the course of the film, his behavior goes from being merely sycophantic to obsessive, manipulative, and, eventually, dangerous. It is, in essence, The Talented Mr. Ripley for millennials, with conscious nods to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, among others.
Fennell has clearly utilized the proverbial ‘Get Out of Jail Free Card’ the success of Promising Young Woman has afforded her - Saltburn is a bigger, more ambitious film, and one that’s considerably less likely to breakthrough into the mainstream. Saltburn goes to some repulsively bizarre places. There’s a scene in Promising Young Woman where Cassie spits in Ryan’s coffee while he watches, and he not only drinks it regardless, but he maintains eye contact, which has to be one of the odder ways someone has ever tried to flirt. But the the misappropriation of bodily fluids in Saltburn makes the coffee scene in Promising Young Woman seem mild by comparison. I understand that the exchange of such, er, juices is extremely intimate (there’s a whole other essay to be written about Fennell’s recurring interest in people swapping liquids), but this is some Takashi Miike-level stuff that’s bound to alienate squeamish viewers.
For anyone who can stomach it, though, the first two-thirds of Saltburn’s run time is entertaining despite its lack of originality. Credit where credit is due: Keoghan has already proven himself, in movies like The Banshees of Inisherin and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, to be one of our most talented young actors… but he has been asked to do some truly outrageous things for this film, and his performance is fearless. Fennell and cinematographer Linus Sandgren (La La Land) have shot the picture in 1.33 : 1, and the visual constriction perfectly mirrors the stiff upper lip of Felix’s aristocratic family (“We dress for dinner here,” Felix tells Oliver - a tradition Oliver later eschews in the most literal of ways). And Fennell certainly knows how to write stinging dialogue, the best of which goes to Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike, who delivers a scene-stealing portrayal of Felix’s oblivious and gossip-prone mother. Richard E. Grant, as Felix’s father, is also quite droll, as he tends to be, and Mulligan returns in a small, but nonetheless memorable, role. Paul Rhys, as Felix’s family butler, and Alison Oliver, as Felix’s sister, are also pretty good; Archie Madekwe, and Felix’s cousin, is painfully annoying, but that’s part of his character so bravo to him, I guess.
But then we learn some information about Oliver that changes the entire meaning of the story. And it’s as damaging to Saltburn as that pat, reassuring ending was to Promising Young Woman, leaving the viewer with the impression that Saltburn is either a meaningless trifle (best case scenario) or an argument for maintaining the social status quo (worst case scenario). Fennell once against trades intellectual coherence for easy drama, and the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.
Actually, the disconsonant story beat in Saltburn might be even worse than the one in Promising Young Woman, because whereas Promising Young Woman doesn’t lose the thread until its conclusion, Saltburn keeps going for another forty minutes after its fatal narrative misstep. Which means the movie is not only thematically confusing, but it becomes tedious to boot, because after the big reveal, the audience is forced to wait for most of the characters to catch up with information we already have. Saltburn is only twenty minutes longer than Promising Young Woman, but it sure is a protracted extra twenty minutes.