2023, R, 128 min. Directed by Emerald Fennell. Starring Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Alison Oliver, Richard E. Grant.
REVIEWED By Jenny Nulf, Fri., Nov. 17, 2023
Obsession and desire line the dark wood-paneled walls of the Saltburn estate in Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to her divisive debut, Promising Young Woman. Saltburn is her mash-up of The Secret History and The Talented Mr. Ripley, a dark academia-soaked thriller stuffed with all the classic tropes of the niche aesthetic: extravagant architecture, dusty textbooks, and musky queer-coded young men.
Set in the midst of the 2000s, Saltburn opens with Oliver Quick (Keoghan, The Banshees of Inisherin) weaving his way through a crowd of students on the first day of the term at Oxford. Kind of dorky, a little lost, a little out of his element, Oliver is quick to notice Felix Catton (Elordi, most recently Elvis in Priscilla) as he enters the courtyard. Devilishly handsome, Felix looms over a cohort of cooing women, effortlessly looking like the most desirable man on campus. From afar Oliver stares, week after week, admiring Felix, but one day on the way to the library his chance emerges and a flat bike tire brings the two boys together – instant best friends.
The setup is alluring, as most dark academia can be. There’s a sexiness to it, funneled through the perspective of Oliver, our designated “poor kid” who is graciously given a golden ticket into the world of the obscenely wealthy. Keoghan’s and Elordi’s castings are brilliant, with the boyishly charming Elordi towering over Keoghan, who was born with a chiseled face that’s etched in mystery. The first-act montage of their budding relationship has intoxicating qualities to it, what should be a solid foundation for the spiral to come, but once Oliver steps foot onto the Saltburn property, Fennell’s maze of masculine manipulation begins to hit one too many dead ends.
Like Promising Young Woman, Saltburn is a decadent candy-coated dream that’s devised to draw the viewer in with a visual feast. Fennell’s deep fascination with religious imagery continues to be prevalent as well, particularly in the film’s third-act birthday blowout, where Felix dons angel wings and Oliver deer horns. Fennell and cinematographer Linus Sandgren fill the film with beams of smoky light, an ethereal quality that visually gives Saltburn a more grandiose quality than the story that Fennell has woven.
The film begins to feel especially bloated when Keoghan and Elordi stop sharing as much screen time together. Much of the film’s second act is devoted to Oliver seeping his way under the skin of Felix’s family, charming the pants off his mother, Elspeth (Pike), and grossly overstepping Felix’s boundaries by seducing his sister, Venetia (Oliver). His filthy mouth is not only soiled with lies, but from the bath water he laps up after Felix bathes and from the period blood he tastes from between his sister’s thighs. The second act devoted to Oliver’s scheming takes away from the electrifying chemistry established between Keoghan and Elordi, an important and powerful cornerstone that the film needs to make the rest of the film really work.
Saltburn, despite all its lavish qualities and fun throwbacks, is an overstuffed and at times dated dive into society’s obsession with how the other half lives. Fennell’s film doesn’t have the right teeth to sink into a juicy, updated life-snatching thriller. We already have a lot of great literature and movies where the unassuming average man envies the rich playboy so much that it leads to a lustful yearning to not only be with him, but to be him. In the end, Saltburn doesn’t have a lot to add to the conversation Fennell keeps wanting to have about the power of white men in this world. It’s a surface-level critique of the upper class and a style-over-substance poke at the out-of-touch aristocrats and the bitter have-nots.
Read our interview with the director, "Emerald Fennell and the Hideous Allure of Saltburn," at austinchronicle.com/screens.