Movie Review: "Saltburn" is sick, savage, and satisfying
In the new film from Emerald Fennell, Barry Keoghan plays an Oxford student drawn into a world of lust and envy at a classmate’s palatial estate.
This movie was written and directed by Emerald Fennell, whose previous movie was “Promising Young Woman,” a horror flick about rape that was also a revenge comedy. So, believe me: She wants you riled. Fennell’s seen the erotic thrillers, studied her Hitchcock, and possibly read her Patricia Highsmith, and gets that if you name your main character Oliver Quick he’s obligated to do something at least arguably Dickensian. The question here, amid all the lying, lazing about, and (eventually, inevitably) dying, is to what end?
We’re dragged back to 2006, where two boys at Oxford — bookish Oliver (Barry Keoghan) and rakish Felix (Jacob Elordi) — forge one of those imbalanced, obsessive friendships where one of them mistakes it for love and the other tolerates it because he’s needier than he looks. Their relationship goes south or sideways or to outer space but also nowhere. Well, that’s not entirely accurate, since it also goes, for one summer, to Saltburn, Felix’s family’s estate: a grassy expanse that boasts a Baroque mansion with stratospheric ceilings, one cantilevered staircase, copious portraiture, a Bernard Palissy ceramic platter collection and one of those garden mazes where characters get lost right along with plot. Now, what happens throughout this visit amounts to a different movie — or maybe three. Lust and envy take over. As does Fennell’s tedious, crude stab at psychopathology.
Fennell’s blessed with an A-list cast dedicated to her increasingly ludicrous script. Keoghan, one of the most beguiling and mercurial actors working today, has the mysterious range to seesaw from vulnerable and docile wunderkind to something much more sinister without flinching. Elordi and “Conversations with Friends” breakout star, Alison Oliver, play posh siblings with aloof seduction. Archie Madekwe and Carey Mulligan find great humor in sad and poisonous ways – and this could just be the funniest performance Rosamund Pike has ever given – alongside Richard E Grant, having the time of his life. I’m even left doubting Fennell’s expertise in the main characters. Are we meant to clock a nerd who, when he sheds the clothes and spectacles, makes you as horny as Felix is supposed to make him? Barry Keoghan is trying to create a role out of the disparate parts of other ones (Norman Bates, Tom Ripley, Patrick Bateman), yet doesn’t get all the way there. He couldn’t have. There is no “there.” “Saltburn” feels like it should be a showcase for Keoghan, a scene-stealer who plays Oliver as a gnomish invader. Indeed, it’s Oliver with whom the film’s dramatic tension lies — he at first looks to be scrambling desperately to make the most of his luck but is increasingly less naïve and more forceful in his pursuits. Still, it’s Elordi the film is smitten with, the camera lingering on his smile as if it’s the source of the golden afternoon sunlight, or zooming in for a close-up of the sweat beading on the hair behind his ear.
But this isn’t a movie in which anybody’s reaction to new developments is straightforward — and not because there’s anything complex or psychological going on with the screenwriting or the performances. It’s because Fennell is more drawn to — or maybe just better at — styling and stunts than she is for the tougher work of emotional writing. If she gives us one music video bit (a montage, a whole tracking shot), she must give us half a dozen. When the time comes for the movie to switch to gothic mischief, it’s like watching the first half of “Psycho” turn into the video for “George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90.” It’s too early in Fennell’s career to draw sweeping conclusions about her sensibility. Still, it feels fair to say that her more irritating habit as a writer is a fondness for button-pushing last acts that undermine all the character building that’s come before. She has plenty of strengths, among them the ebullient tempo of her work, an ability to hone in on themes that feel urgent even though they’re not explored in-depth, and, well, vibes. I don’t mean that to sound disdainful — while “Promising Young Woman” was darkly compelling until it turned frustratingly glib, Saltburn is a much sillier and emptier film. And yet its vibes are strong enough to sustain it right up until its final segment when Fennell can’t help but once again blow up everything she’s built in favour of a finale that makes you feel a little dumb for being invested. Fennell may be an exasperating filmmaker, but she’s incapable of being boring.
Overall, the whole movie seems to exist for its coda and presumably the prosthetics designer whose name appears in the closing credits. It’s another music video fantasia, but so cynical, literal-minded, and cheeky that I cringed my way through it. And it asks a lot of Keoghan, who could have built a memorable, original character for Fennell. It begs the question of whether real acting is what Fennell’s after here. Oliver has a decent amount of strategic sex and Keoghan does his share of nudity, but the only pornographic thing about the movie is the house. All of Fennell’s most luscious montages, including a particularly delicious one set to MGMT’s “Time to Pretend'' that finds the characters playing tennis in formalwear while drinking Champagne from bottles, are about the fabulousness of life on the Catton estate and of the family’s young heir. It’s more and more of a bummer when the music stops and she has to move the plot along, especially when all she can serve up is a twist that’s less eat the rich than be the rich. Saltburn’s seductive imagery outweighs its obvious attempts at provocation. And while it does end up making being rich look pretty sweet, that’s not exactly a revelation worth hanging a whole movie on.
Err... It's cringe.
Watch the Trailer
"Saltburn" is now streaming in France on Prime Video.