After Emerald Fennell’s impressive first feature film, Promising Young Woman, many were curious to see what she would bring to the table with Saltburn. There’s no question Fennell is a talented and passionate filmmaker who presents interesting ideas on screen. Unfortunately, Saltburn falls prey to not knowing what it wants to be and suffers deeply from a lack of clarity in its direction and disjointed character motivations.
Set in 2006 and 2007, the film follows Oxford student Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), an outsider and a “scholarship boy who buys his clothes from Oxfam.” He struggles to fit in with his privileged peers until he befriends the charming playboy Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), and everything changes. When Felix invites Oliver to Saltburn—his family’s lavish countryside home—Oliver quickly adapts to their way of life and jumps the class ladder. But, things take a wild and unexpected turn for the worse during that unforgettable summer.
Fennell makes a stylistic choice to have the events of this visually sumptuous period piece take place in the mid-oughts. Throwing in a few needle drops, flip phones, and culturally significant references to the era doesn’t do much for the movie except place the characters at a specific point in time and utilize it as a plot device in its timeline (which later jumps to 2020). An older Oliver reflects on what happened at Saltburn as a narrative framing tool. Fennell also intentionally shot in Academy ratio, constructing a claustrophobic atmosphere ripe with an abundance of close-ups.
The Saltburn country manor is a character itself, the sort of fantastical place one gets lost in and never wants to leave… literally. With its sprawling acreage, perfectly manicured gardens, and an endless number of rooms, it’s a refuge for those “less-fortunate” souls who couldn’t even begin to comprehend the opportunities it presents. Saltburn functions in a fable-like realm where nothing is as it seems.
Of course, Saltburn would be nothing without Felix’s parents, Sir James Catton (Richard E. Grant) and Elspeth Catton (Rosamund Pike), whose quirky, dry-humored banter often stole the show. Venetia Catton (Alison Oliver), Felix’s precocious, chain-smoking sister, is an aimless character, not knowing where she wants to go in life. Fennell brilliantly delves into the Catton’s dysfunctional and odd family dynamics, a world she thoroughly understands. The Cattons (especially Elspeth) get bored with people easily, not caring about anybody except themselves. Class and race tensions are evident in nearly every scene, exploring age-old tropes devoid of new commentary.
Blatantly borrowing from classics like The Talented Mr. Ripley and American Psycho, Oliver morphs into a sinister mirror of Matt Damon’s scheming mastermind, Tom Ripley, with disturbing sparks of Patrick Bateman thrown in. Much like Ripley, Oliver is a peeping tom, who gets off on his voyeuristic tendencies — he wants what he can’t have. However, the glaring difference is that Ripley’s intentions are clear from the beginning, while Oliver’s are all over the place. His carnal lust and desire for Felix paired with the eerie magic spell he’s put under by Saltburn add to Oliver’s growing insanity, as he is already unhinged. Keoghan delivers a mesmerizing and chameleonic performance, shifting between the polite, downtrodden Oliver and the deranged, sociopathic Oliver. He effortlessly carries the film on his back, indulging in three key unpleasant and depraved moments that Fennell revels in.
The most glaring problem with Fennell’s script is that Oliver’s manipulative tactics to get what he wants are forced and inconsistent with his unclear motivations. It’s almost as if she wanted him to be the protagonist and antagonist but wouldn’t choose a stance. In the beginning, it’s hard not to feel sympathetic for Oliver, yet the film’s massive tonal shift and twists toward the end do not work. He’s a pathological liar revealed to be more cold-hearted than the aristocratic Cattons.
Without a doubt, Fennell’s greatest gift as a filmmaker and storyteller is her astute attentiveness to specificity and details, as well as imbuing painstakingly human themes and concepts into the world she creates. Aside from the bold and glowing efforts of a seasoned cast, the movie’s gorgeous cinematography and vibrant production design are its most memorable elements. Embracing the messiness of being human, flaws and all, is on full display in Saltburn despite taking itself too seriously.
Perhaps the film could have worked if it was purely a study of Oliver’s psychological state of mind and honed in on his cat-and-mouse relationship with Felix, whose obliviousness and good-hearted nature closely align with a classic protagonist figure even though he, too, is problematic. Instead, Saltburn turned out to be an indecisive and derivative muddle, finding safety in shock value rather than substance. As a hypnotically sensual fever dream, Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn never fulfills its tangible potential. The enticing ideas and fleshed-out characters on display could have benefitted immensely if they led to a structured, coherent ending that actually made sense. Don’t let Saltburn deceive you—it’s not as smart as it thinks.