2023 | rated R | starring Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosemund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver | written & directed by Emerald Fennell | 2h 11m |
3 out of 5
Oliver Quick (Barry Koeghan) is a socially inept new student at Oxford who finds himself picked by big man on campus Felix (Jacob Elordi, that jerk in Euphoria) to spend the summer at their family’s lavish estate, Saltburn, where he has run ins with sister Venitia (Alison Oliver, Conversations with Friends), mother Elspeth (Rosemund Pike) and patriarch James Catton (the legendary Richard E. Grant). As Venitia predicts, based on the phase of the moon, “we’re all about to lose our minds”.
Truth be told, the only reason we’re going to talk about Saltburn is because of my respect and admiration for Emerald Fennell and her first film, 2020’s electric firecracker Promising Young Woman. Otherwise, Saltburn would have gone into the “meh” pile of movies I regularly see that don’t make it onto this forum because there is nothing about them to write about. This is yet another tale of Eating the Rich. The eccentric privileged class out of Barry Lyndon, who lay around all day oblivious to the world around them. You’re supposed to hate them in the same way you’re now, in 2023, supposed to hate the McCallister’s from Home Alone for having a big house. Class warfare satire. It’s all just so dull and in Saltburn Fennell adds nothing new to the conversation.
There is one extraordinary thing about the film, Saltburn is visually stunning. The shots, the cinematography, it’s all very cinematic. It’s like an answer to the one thing you can ding Promising Young Woman for. That film looked flat, sitcom-ish, I would say by design. This movie swings the other direction. It’s sprawling, with immaculate over-head shots and unbroken takes. It’s Fennell showing she could write with Promising, but has the visual skill to direct a “prestige film” with Saltburn.
The story is The Talented Mr. Ripley meets Call Me By Your Name. A movie so homoerotic that even scenes of heterosexual sex have a tinge of homoeroticism. A story of obsession and greed and jealousy. You’ve seen it before. Fennell does her best to push her project out of the pack with a few spikes where the movie indulges in outrageousness mostly for the sake of outrageousness. It’s like it’s designed for social media consumption, to pull scenes out of context and turn them into memes. To get people talking about “the vampire scene” or “the grave scene”. A lot of movies are designed to get a reaction out of us, but this one is specifically designed for reaction videos. It’s interesting. In the 90s and 00s male sexuality was depicted dysfunctionally on screen because it was powered by Harvey Weinstein’s sex-as-power influence. Now, it’s depicted dysfunctionally by female filmmakers who view it as an oddity to be mocked.
For me, it mostly fell flat. There is one truly great scene here: the reveal and immediate aftermath of a main character’s death. It’s handled beautifully where the movie nails the tones of dark, absurd and funny all at once. I actually watched it multiple times. If the rest of Saltburn was such a well-balanced cocktail, we would have something great on our hands, something as Kubrickian as I suspect Fennell is going for.
Well made and well acted, the technical pieces are all here. Saltburn is not a bad movie, but it’s not particularly good either. It just kind of hums along aiming to shock the easily shocked for shock value sake. Fennell is undoubtably a talented filmmaker and I greatly look forward to her next film, as both of these movies are the work of her unincumbered vision which is great. This entry in her future filmography, just ain’t it.