Written and Directed by Emerald Fennell.
Starring Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, Archie Madekwe, Carey Mulligan, Paul Rhys, Ewan Mitchell, Reece Shearsmith, Lolly Adefope, Sadie Soverall, Millie Kent, Aleah Aberdeen, Julian Lloyd Patten, Olivia Hanrahan-Barnes, Richard Cotterell, Joshua Samuels, Will Gibson, Tomás Barry, Andy Brady, Saga Spjuth-Säll, Gabriel Bisset-Smith, and Tasha Lim.
Struggling to find his place at Oxford University, student Oliver Quick finds himself drawn into the world of the charming and aristocratic Felix Catton, who invites him to Saltburn, his eccentric family’s sprawling estate, for a summer never to be forgotten.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, Saltburn wouldn’t exist.
Saltburn proudly features Barry Keoghan playing yet another weirdo, although this time in the leading role as a demented, lustful, obsessive, manipulative psychopath that feels like the role his career has been building up to thus far. As for writer/director Emerald Fennell, who bulldozed her way into being an Oscar-winning, must-watch filmmaker with her first effort, Promising Young Woman, she is tapping into trendy material by swapping timely examinations of sexual conduct and consent with a social class character study.
Splitting the difference, Barry Keoghan gives a fearless and precise performance that currently stands as arguably his best performance to date, considering that his character is front and center for the first time, whereas Emerald Fennell, despite the incredible craftsmanship on display, seems to have taken a step backward with a narrative fixated on easier, more obvious thematic targets and less bold, righteous anger.
Set in the mid-2000s, Barry Keoghan is Oxford freshman Oliver Quick, a financially disadvantaged loner struggling to make friends in this polar opposite environment, with the closest person to a pal being a math freak shouting at him to be tested with mathematical problems seemingly impossible to calculate inside one’s head. His eyes, mind, heart, or penis (perhaps a combination of all of the above) are drawn into the world of the popular stud on campus, Jacob Elordi’s wealthy, dreamy, friendly, and sympathetic Felix, allowing him further into his circle in return for acts of kindness such as being loaned a bike to get around following his suffering a flat tire and sadness upon learning that the young man comes from a broken home parented by drug addicts.
Oliver’s behavior instantly becomes creepy, spying on Felix’s sex life (the film is shot in the Academy ratio to more effectively drive home that voyeuristic feeling, especially when it comes to some truly depraved sexually-charged encounters). It’s unclear if he wants to be with Felix or if he wants his status and to be him specifically. Nevertheless, Oliver is invited to decompress from his depressing life back home by spending a wild summer at Felix’s home, the titular Saltburn family estate.
Among the two budding friends are Felix’s aristocratic, filthy rich parents, Elspeth and Sir James, played by Rosamond Pike and Richard E. Grant, both self-absorbed, but with mom having the additional trait of hilarious vanity. Then there is sex-addicted sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) and an American cousin (Archie Madekwe), feeling a bit boxed out by the new friendship dynamic, and Promising Young Woman star Carey Mulligan as a trainwreck family friend given residence not out of the goodness in their hearts (the only one that seems genuinely well-meaning is Felix, who is more oblivious to his privilege and why men and women can’t help themselves from being magnetized into his orbit) but because she is deemed a case study to observe.
That also plays into the main text of Saltburn, a film where the rich are so obsessed with studying and looking down on the lives of the less fortunate like they are test subjects that they don’t notice Oliver’s obsession, mind games, and the sickening extremes you will go to achieve what he is after. One of the more fascinating aspects here is about the dismissal of stranger danger, not necessarily through naivety, but from a gross display of self-importance and unchecked ego. Then there is the sexual perversion of it all, with characters seducing one another and finding themselves in explicit scenarios. At least not when partying until sunrise, often decked out in extravagant costumes. Linus Sandgren also photographs the hell out of the estate and surrounding areas, populating the striking imagery and excess partying with vibrant color.
What holds Saltburn back is that while it is consistently and entertainingly warped, there is also the sensation that even though we are learning about these characters, we aren’t necessarily diving deep into them since they are there to service a plethora of late-game plot twists that come so consecutively fast that the third act feels like it’s trailblazing a path through a sequel rather than an ending. With that said, what happens during those final 30 minutes is beyond sinister and beautifully uncomfortable (there is a hypnotically crass sequence at a grave), and it somewhat makes up for the previous 90 minutes of gear spinning.
Every specific detail of Saltburn doesn’t necessarily click into place but is rather so bonkers that the result is an undeniably admirable lunch at lunge from Emerald Fennell. When you have Barry Keoghan committed this hard, especially for the showstopping ending sequence, one doesn’t feel too burned from the narrative covering recent familiar themes without adding much to the discussion.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com