Saltburn (United Kingdom/United States, 2023)

November 27, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Saltburn Poster

I’ll be the first to admit that not everything in Saltburn works and, during some of the cringe-inducing instances when it fails, it does so rather spectacularly.  Yet Emerald Fennell’s film is just bonkers enough to be wildly entertaining and completely disturbing in equal parts. Like Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, the movie does unapologetically weird things with a seemingly familiar storyline (the “apparently-friendly stranger among us” trope that influenced a barrage of ‘90s thrillers from The Hand that Rocks the Cradle to Single White Female). The ending is the weakest part – not so much what happens but the director’s insistence that we need a series of flashbacks to “fill in the blanks.”

Saltburn starts off in an Oxford-set with the “meet cute” between students Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) and Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). In a voiceover, Oliver informs us that he loves Felix but isn’t “in love” with him. He then details all of Felix’s admirable qualities, which are seemingly without end. It doesn’t take long for us to recognize that Felix has ascended to a godlike pedestal in Oliver’s imaginings. Still, the handsome, charismatic Felix is all-too-happy to offer the hand of friendship to the shy outcast Oliver when the latter lends him a bicycle after his own mode of transportation develops a flat.

Early on, Oliver and Felix’s relationship seems influenced by The Talented Mr. Ripley but, after things have cooled down between them, it is re-ignited when Oliver suffers an emotional blow. Felix invites Oliver to spend the summer with him at his family’s palatial country estate, Saltburn. Also in residence are Felix’s resolutely polite father, Sir James (Richard E. Grant); his chatty mother, Elspeth (Rosamund Pike); his oversexed sister, Venetia (Alison); and two other guests, fellow Oxford student, Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), and a middle-aged woman, Poor Dear Pamela (Carey Mulligan). As he settles into his life at Saltburn, the diffident Oliver recedes to be replaced by a master manipulator who has an agenda that no one, least of all Felix, suspects.

Fennell’s screenplay takes some chances. In many cases, they work, although the film’s obsession with bodily fluids becomes a bit too much at times (I am not at all squeamish but a couple of instances had me flinching). The homoerotic elements are pretty evident although it’s not always clear how far various couplings are taken. For his part, Oliver seems fully willing to engage in any kind of seduction and/or copulation as long as it suits his needs. He’s a nasty piece of work although we don’t fully realize it during the early scenes when he comes across as shy, needy, and lonely.

Barry Keoghan is no stranger to this sort of role, having played a not-dissimilar individual in Yorgos Lanthimos’ even weirder The Killing of a Sacred Deer. For better or worse, Keoghan is great in this sort of part. He is capable of being charming – in a warped, twisted sort of way – while being equally good at playing the cold-hearted psychopath. Jacob Elordi, who portrayed Elvis in Sofia Coppola’s bio-pic, Priscilla, plays Felix as more of an idol of masculinity than a fully-formed character. Carey Mulligan, who had the lead in Promising Young Woman, Richard E. Grant, and newcomer Alison Oliver have supporting roles. Rosamund Pike steals every scene she’s in as the fast-talking, vapid Elspeth, who’s never at a loss for words or cutting commentary even in the direst of circumstances.

From a purely narrative perspective, the way Saltburn ends is a bit of an anticlimax but fully logical (at least within the unreal world in which the film is set). What disappoints, however, is Fennell’s seeming lack of confidence in either her own storytelling capabilities or the attentiveness of her audience. The need to regurgitate various moments from the previous two hours to show how they fit together is unnecessary and even a little insulting. It’s like a bad mystery movie where the villain holds the hero at gunpoint and patiently explains all the details of his nefarious scheme. Nevertheless, questionable late-movie choices don’t diminish Saltburn’s admirable qualities: its audacity, energy, and unpredictability.

Saltburn (United Kingdom/United States, 2023)

Run Time: 2:07
U.S. Release Date: 2023-11-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Nudity, Violence, Profanity)
Genre: Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1