November 17, 2023
Writer/director Emerald Fennell has wasted no time cashing in her blank check to make Saltburn, a feature-length Calvin Klein ad that slots nicely in the recent "eat the rich" movie trend (see Triangle of Sadness, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, and The Menu just last year). Fennell somehow molds all three of those features into one product, creating something that loves to push your buttons and make you squirm just as much as it wants you to laugh out loud. Sometimes you don’t whether to laugh or look away, making this one of the most outlandishly memorable films of the year, both for good and bad reasons.
Fennell shifts her sophomore feature away from the American setting of Promising Young Woman to her native England, specifically the most British place there is: Oxford University. The freshman class of 2006 has descended upon the campus and the class divides have already been set. Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) finds himself on the lonely side of the have-nots, while people like Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) and Farleigh Start (Archie Madekwe) sit atop their ivory towers. The silver spoon kids aren’t necessarily assholes, but there is an aura of “you and I are not equals” that permeates from them. Oliver desperately wants to be part of that clique, and, luckily for him, he gets a foot in the door through Felix, who seemingly takes him under his wing out of pity.
Elordi and Keoghan look as if they’re ready to remake the Schwarzenegger/DeVito starring Twins in these opening sections. Keoghan is only a little more sociable than his homicidal character in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but he’s just as carnivorous as he lusts after Felix’s body and lifestyle. It’s hard to blame him when someone like Elordi is standing right in front of you, a golden child who knows he can turn the whole room when he walks in. It’s no wonder why Sofia Coppola cast him as Elvis Presley in this year’s Priscilla.
Felix’s ultimate gesture of kindness is inviting Oliver to his family’s sprawling estate, Saltburn, for the summer. There he meets the rest of the Catton aristocracy: aloof father James (Ricard E. Grant), caustic mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), and uncontrollable sister Venetia (Alison Oliver). Everything about the house is so sumptuous as it seemingly exists in a plane outside of mortal existence. “Time to Pretend” and “Mr. Brightside” rock the soundtrack as Oliver and the group play tennis in suits/dresses, swim in the private lake, and host parties where the minimum guest list is 200 names.
For Oliver, it’s going to be impossible to go back to a regular life once he’s had a taste of the next level. Both he and Fennell ask: Do these nobles deserve the life they have, especially if all they had to do to earn it was be born? The comparisons to The Talented Mr. Ripley are aplenty, but I doubt even the misanthropic callousness of Patricia Highsmith would dare to try and reach the levels of provocation that Fennell instills within her answers. Most of it feels like substance, but some of it feels like it's here just for shock value. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as there are deeds done that you must see to believe. Let’s just say vampirism, bathtubs, and grave plots will have a whole new context when you walk out.
Fennell also gets dangerously close to overplaying her hand the further down the rabbit hole she takes us. Things do get a little too outlandish for believability, undermining much of the intricately layered suspense built up over the last few hours. Keoghan, along with Linus Sandgren’s gorgeous 1.33:1 cinematography, paves over many of those faults. Their work in the final sequence makes it one of the best of the year as the knife gets twisted one final time for good measure.
Saltburn’s brain might not always equal its bite, but there’s so much self-assured showmanship that I was glad to get lost in this maze. Between being an Academy Award winner and displaying a strong disinterest in subtly, it’s hard to pin down exactly where Fennell will be pointing her darkly sharp pen and camera next. That’s just the way I want it to stay, as there’s always room for someone to push boundaries by going for broke with each step up to the plate.