This review of Saltburn is spoiler-free.
Emerald Fennell simply cannot be stopped. The innovative genius behind the genre-bending instant classic Promising Young Woman is a wicked, boundary-pushing filmmaker. Her new film, Saltburn, challenges viewers with consistent and twisted shock value.
The result is a movie that can be compulsively addictive. The story never feels comfortable, and it never finds the stability to settle on solid ground. That’s because Fennell’s Saltburn has a well-planned and plotted unpredictability that is easy to expect but even harder to execute.
And while Fennell’s script owes a debt to Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, that doesn’t take away Saltburn’s overall decadent cinematic effectiveness. It’s a gluttonous affair, where almost everything is over the top. Fennell has created a style of storytelling that is all her own.
Saltburn’s Plot Summary and Review
The story follows Oliver Quick (a terrific Barry Keoghan), a shy and awkward scholarship student at Oxford University. There’s a social structure at Oxford, and Oliver needs to find his place within it. He doesn’t come from money, and his blunt honesty creates more enemies than friendships whenever he attracts attention.
That changes when he meets Felix (Jacob Elordi), the affluent son of the aristocratic Catton family. Tall, handsome, rich, and charming, Felix is the English version of a Hollywood star on campus. Felix befriends Oliver, showing him unexpected empathy after the loner lends his bike to the popular student, who is running late for class.
This unexpected friendship prompts Felix to invite Oliver to the family estate, Saltburn, for the summer. There, Oliver encounters Felix’s reckless sister, Venetia (a terrific Alison Oliver), his eclectic parents (Rosamund Pike and Richard C. Grant), and his snobby friend, Farleigh (Archie Madekwe).
The interaction sparks a firestorm of events fueled by their obsessive and jealous natures.
While Saltburn owes a debt to The Talented Mr. Ripley, Fennell’s film is audacious nonetheless.
As mentioned earlier, while Saltburn acknowledges its debt to Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (among others), Fennell’s film is an audacious achievement. Unlike Minghella’s classic Hollywood setting, Fennell drapes her movie in a tapestry of debauchery and depravity. Why? To cover two things: plot and rich narrative themes.
All the elements—sex, drugs, alcohol, jealousy, and lust—serve as conduits for exploring themes of social classism, identity, obsession, moral ambiguity, isolation, alienation, and even tender, sensitive issues of sexuality.
While these may seem surface-level initially, as the film progresses, viewers realize they are witnessing next-level themes that allow various interpretations of human nature and societal expectations. This fascination arises because Keoghan’s Oliver, like Carey Mulligan’s Cassie from Promising Young Woman, becomes the autocratic puppet master.
Is Saltburn Worth Watching?
Saltburn is worth watching for Keoghan’s performance as Oliver begins pulling the strings of these fragile souls. The exception is that obsessed with Felix, Keoghan plays the “straight man” to everyone else’s shenanigans. Oliver manipulates these characters toward his preplanned destinations through stealthy psychological trickery that gradually unfolds that’s enthralling to watch.
Priscella’s Jacob Elordi is a born movie star who performs exceptionally well here. Pike and Grant bring their unmatched talent to important supporting roles. However, the other performance that deserves recognition, in my opinion, comes from Alison Oliver, who is unforgettable in her role. She is diabolically vulnerable, darkly funny, remarkably complex, and surprisingly poignant.
Saltburn will have its detractors and will be more embraced by the younger generations and cinephiles who seek something different from mainstream viewing. And that’s good news, because the young people ultimately decide what movies are classics in the decades to come. Fennell’s film has a chance to be just that.
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