Set during ancient times (the year 2006), Saltburn stars Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick, a student on scholarship at Oxford University. Early into his time at the school, he becomes fixated on Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), an impeccably handsome aristocrat who is the exact opposite of Oliver. He moves through the world exuding a confident coolness that Oliver hopelessly lacks. Oliver wants to be his friend, and he’s willing to play a sociopathic long game in order to do so.
When they do finally start to connect, Oliver tells Felix about his troubled home-life. After learning that Oliver’s father has died unexpectedly, Felix invites him to spend the summer at his family’s estate in Saltburn. This palatial mansion is home to Felix’s mother, Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), a former model who loves her hot gossip; his respectfully sweet and simple father, James (Richard E. Grant); and Venetia (Alison Oliver), Felix’s troubled sister who can’t seem to get out of her own way. Amongst the family are a few other guests, including Oliver and Felix’s Oxford queer colleague Farleigh (Archie Madekwe, Gran Turismo), who is an outsider like Oliver himself, and “Poor Dear Pamela” (an underutilized Carey Mulligan), another lost soul with nowhere to go for the summer holiday.
Emerald Fennell’s sophomore film Saltburn is underscored by a flurry of strong performances from familiar faces and opulent production design that can still effectively be described as sprawling despite being contained by a 1.33:1 aspect ratio (justified by Fennell as to give the viewer of the feeling of “peeping in”). These inclusions make the film’s lack of dramatic effect and empty shock value a bit easier to stomach over 130 long minutes. Emphasis on the term a bit.
Strangely enough, Saltburn plays a lot like a decisively smaller scale version of Killers of the Flower Moon, and suffers from that film’s biggest issue of heavy telegraphing. By opening with the present before flashing back, Fennell misguidedly has Oliver more-or-less reveal his intentions for Felix and his family, so much so that the late third act “reveal” is less a revelation and more confirmation that we knew where this story was headed all along.
As mixed as I was about Fennell’s Oscar-winning Promising Young Woman, the “shock” aspects were more ingratiated into the narrative of a woman carrying out revenge for a heinous act. Here, Fennell gratuitously invites these moments into the story, such as Oliver’s vampiric sexual encounter with Venetia while she is on her period, or Oliver latter trying to have sex with the fresh dirt of a gravesite. These moments are made disquieting, if nothing else, thanks to cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s (La La Land) foggy and dreamlike visuals. But they’re fleeting moments in a film that avoids going beneath the surface of “obsession,” a core theme Fennell uses as a crutch when it becomes apparent that there’s not a whole lot of substance to Saltburn as a whole. Her using Oliver to attack the notion of Farleigh’s critique that he speaks with “style over substance” shows she’s already armed to defend herself in the face of this accusation.
Don’t mistake a shallow narrative for equally shallow performances, for everyone involved knows their respective beats. Barry Keoghan has slowly vaulted into one of my favorite actors working today. He stood out as an individual amongst the problematic quartet of hapless thieves in American Animals, and his Oscar-nominated turn in The Banshees of Inisherin proved his creepy charm could leave an impression despite being relegated to a niche supporting role. In Saltburn, Keoghan plays needy and creepy to levels that would suggest incorrigibility but only make him that much more watchable.
Following up a tremendous performance as the King of Rock and Roll in Priscilla, Elordi somehow finds ways to be more alluring here. He reminds you of people you see and just immediately assume they have it all: looks, wealth, power, confidence, everything you lack. Rosamund Pike continues to be exceptional playing out-of-touch, self-absorbed women of power, and Richard E. Grant has a knockout scene after a family tragedy as he tries to keep the peace at the dinner table.
Saltburn has enough talent in front of and behind the camera to assure a plethora of good moments and some sharply written black comedy. However, the humor and insights are far too slight in the meantime. Furthermore, it’s a film hampered by a handful of screenwriting decisions — the needless framework, an amusing but ultimately flat ending — that, if either further developed or completely omitted, might’ve resulted in a more satisfying project. Saltburn is indeed a slowburn, but its underwhelming execution makes it sting like sodium in a wound.
NOTE: Saltburn is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Starring: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, Archie Madekwe, and Carey Mulligan. Directed by: Emerald Fennell.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!