Second features are difficult when you’ve knocked it out of the park with your directorial debut (just ask Olivia Wilde). In the case of the remarkably talented Emerald Fennell, one could say the task might seem almost impossible, given how good her film Promising Young Woman was. Easily one of my favorite films of 2020, Fennell has followed that future classic up with her latest feature Saltburn. And the good news is Saltburn is just as darkly and devilishly clever as her previous endeavor, even if, comparably, it’s not quite as stellar.
Equal parts witty and wicked, Saltburn is the latest in a series of sharp tongued takedowns of the lavish luxurious lifestyles of elite living, following in the footsteps of equally dark stories like The Menu, Triangle of Sadness, and Succession. However, Fennell’s boldness comes across even more potently than what’s seen in those films, as she pushes the envelope further beyond what those recent stories did, fearlessly exceeding the boundaries of good taste at times. In short, she’s never terrified to get increasingly uglier and more demented as the film continues. Following my viewing of Promising Young Woman, I compared Fennell’s style and approach to filmmaking as closer to Tarantino’s work, in that how one of her stories starts and where it ends by its finale are not only completely unpredictable and unforeseen, but also flat out bat crap crazy. And cousin, Saltburn is ready for a straightjacket.
Now a caution to all those reading this right now, It’ll be difficult to discuss the movie further without delving into heavy spoilers. And my honest advice to you with any work of Fennell’s is to go in completely blind. I did that for both Promising Young Woman and Saltburn and found my experiences to be all the more satisfying because of that. So if you want to do the same, I suggest watching the film first, then coming back to read this review after.
Saltburn centers on a lonely Oxford student, named Oliver, who finds himself in an unexpected friendship with a wealthy popular peer named Felix. After getting to know one another, kind-hearted Felix takes pity on Oliver and invites him to stay with him and his family at Saltburn, their manor, over the summer holiday. Things soon take a darker turn however, as more becomes revealed about Oliver and his growing infatuation with Felix and his family. And soon enough, all hell begins to delicately break loose, with each passing moment escalating into crazier and more twisted scenarios.
As the title of this review may indicate, Saltburn shares a lot in common with author Patricia Highsmith’s “Tom Ripley” novels; particularly The Talented Mr. Ripley. It deals with infatuation, obsession, deception, and a parasitic urge to siphon off the well-being of others. The attempts of a character to infiltrate the life of another, and the nightmare that occurs once he gets in are similarly chilling between the two stories. Additionally, at its core, in many ways, it’s also a clever twist on the “home invasion” subgenre. With most of those films (e.g. The Strangers, Funny Games, Hush, The Purge, etc.) the terror focuses on a physical home invasion, with criminals forcefully focusing violence to literally break into a home to achieve their goals.
But Saltburn varies from this significantly, with a more passive approach to the invasion, posting the question about what would happen if the home invasion was committed by someone who was actively invited in, and actually welcomed. What does this say about the wealthy elites desperately looking for a project to make them feel better about themselves? Is there a level of kindness in their actions? Or are they just phonies? Does this justify whatever it is Oliver is planning on doing? Watching all of these questions get answered in a suspenseful slow-burn sort of way gives payoff and innovation to an otherwise tired subgenre, subverting it at every turn. And that’s Fennell’s amazing, clever work at play here, both as a writer and director.
Centering the movie on a twisted character like Oliver Quick is a bold choice, and it would be difficult to pull off if not for Fennell’s writing and a commanding performance by star Barry Keoghan. Oscar nominee Keoghan is astonishingly good, teetering the lines between sympathetic one moment, and utterly creepy and despicable the next. You know and feel like you should hate this character, but he almost cons the audience into feeling pity for him at times, the same way he does the other fictional characters around him. Then immediately after you’re instantly reminded how creepy this guy is. And that’s the power of Keoghan, who exhibited similar energy in his previous roles, from Druig in Eternals, to Dominic in Banshees of Inisherin.
The rest of the cast is solid, but I must give a special shout out to Rosamund Pike and Carey Mulligan, who are just absolutely hilarious in their elitist yuppie performances. Pike in general is such a wonderful actress, acting heinously snobbish one moment, and desperately co-dependent the next. Her line deliveries of Finnell’s sharply worded wit had the audience in hysterics. While Jacob Elordi is, perhaps, one of the more sympathetic characters in the film. There’s an earnestness to his character Felix, that feels quite relatable; a difficult feat to pull of for a character as privileged as he is. And that’s really due to Elordi’s likability.
The cinematography in the film is absolutely stunning. Director of Photography Linus Sandgren (La La Land) frames every shot with picturesque symmetry and fever dream colors. The effect immerses the audience in a nightmarish haze of reds and greens, that transport them into the deepest layers of Hell, as the film gets darker and more twisted with every minute that passes by. By the end of the film, it was hands-down, one of my favorite elements of this movie, and deserves definitive awards consideration.
I will definitely caution that Saltburn is not for those with weak stomachs. There are a lot of nasty moments in this movie from both a physical gross-out aspect and a skin crawling sense of discomfort, watching characters committing feats of sick behavior, from a sexual and social standpoint. Your enjoyment of the film may or may not be tainted by what you see visually. This is not a feel good movie. Nor is it one that will take any sort of mercy on sensitive viewers or stomachs. Some may question the point of some of the sicker moments in the movie. And I would tell them that it emphasizes the (as the movie blatantly states) the vampiric and moth-like nature in a character like Oliver.
The one thing that sets Promising Young Woman apart from Saltburn, however, seems to be the presence of a stronger a message. Promising Young Woman had a strong, impassioned voice and thesis. But Saltburn doesn’t really seem to have much to say. I suppose it’s trying to play off of similar themes to films like Parasite, and how the inequalities of class warfare have turned us against each other. But to be fair, it would have been stronger if the wealthy characters were much more repulsive. In this case it’s the less wealthy individual that starts and ends the film as the sickest, most despicable force in the film. Thus it makes me believe this isn’t a movie about class inequality, but more about entitlement, avarice, and the darkest human desires for more. But even so what about it? Saltburn seems to just leave it at “that’s a thing” without ever really wanting us to consider it further.
That being said, the movie doesn’t have to be profound or deep to be good. And in the case of Saltburn, it’s never boring. Much like a Tarantino movie, the powder keg builds, and builds, into an explosively twisted dénouement that pulls the rug from under you. And as a narrative, it shares more in common with Fennell’s work on Killing Eve than Promising Young Woman. Suspenseful, dark, and entertaining with memorable characters. With terrific performances and stunning, visuals, Saltburn may not be the best we’ve seen from Fennell. But it certainly is an enjoyable and well-made sophomore film.
Overall Score: B