A brilliantly dark deep dive into extravagance, envy, want, and revenge, Saltburn is a deliciously addictive affair starring the alluring Barry Keoghan.
It's 2006, and Oliver “Ollie” Quick (Barry Keoghan) is a smart young man, who thanks to a scholarship, is attending Oxford University alongside the UK's most elite young proteges. Unlike Oliver who had to work hard to gain his spot, the other students made it in thanks to their family names and legacies, as well as loads of donations. Despite dressing as smartly as he can, Oliver is an immediate outcast due to his tax bracket, placing him forever on the outside of the social hierarchy. That is until one day when Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), the tall, handsome, and wealthy “king” of the school needs a favor. Felix takes pity on Ollie's situation and invites him to tag along to all the parties and dinners he attends. When summer comes around, Felix invites Oliver to stay in his family's country estate, a Downton Abbey-like stately home named Saltburn. It isn't long before a series of tragic events unfold as Oliver desperately latches on to the Catton family.
Saltburn is a deliciously addictive affair, serving as a brilliant deep dive into extravagance, envy, want, and revenge. It's an intriguing look into the lengths one will go to obtain their deepest desires. The fact that audiences are lured in and ensnared almost immediately should come as no surprise. It is, after all, the Sophomore outing of director and writer Emerald Fennell, the clever mind behind Promising Young Woman. In Saltburn, she has once again crafted a masterful satire, an eat the rich commentary about classism and a type of grandeur that gives birth to visceral obsessions. It is as enticing as it is dark, full of desire and rage with performances that make it impossible to look away even when things go horribly and delightfully wrong.
To truly showcase her characters and their many (or few) layers, Fennell's writing and pacing allows the story to breathe. Each player on the grandiose stage has a motive or a secret, or in some cases perhaps they are just as empty-headed as they seem. Metaphors and symbolism abound, cleverly captured through cinematographer Linus Sandgren's lens and Fennell's script. Venetia (Alison Oliver), Felix's younger sister compares Ollie to a moth, desperate to get in but regretting once he's made it. Oliver himself preens in one scene, calling himself a vampire, as he readies himself to devour his prey whole. Each scene is framed purposefully to feed the fever dream energy that hits a massive crescendo by the end of the third act. Sandgren's use of mirrors and the reflections seen in the dinner table as well as the pond, all reinforce that things aren't as they seem and that looks can be deceiving. You can't help but lean in, wondering where this is all headed or more importantly what tragedies are set to be revealed in a matter of moments. You aren't looking away, eager to see it all play out, and you might even find yourself conflicted with sympathy. It's just plain exciting as Fennell makes you an accomplice to Oliver's actions.
Saltburn is a tricky little devil, fully prepared to make its audience squirm in their seats. It hits some familiar beats in terms of obsession and deception but Fennell knows how to make her work stand apart from all the others, yes even the oft mentioned Talented Mr. Ripley. She has a knack for needle drops, fashion statements (this time showing off the true awfulness of the 00s “cool kids” picks), and shining a light on that grey area where attraction and hatred dance around one another endlessly. She has a grown-up and snooty Oliver narrate the film, starting off by declaring everyone misinterpreted his feelings for Felix. He wasn't in love with him, he muses, no it wasn't quite that. He pops back in throughout the film providing some insight although you can never exactly believe what he is saying. After all, Oliver is mercurial, shapeshifting to be whomever he needs to be based on his audience. How can someone like that be trusted wholly? The answer is he can't, however we have no choice but to listen to him as he is the one recounting that fateful summer at Saltburn.
Opulence and psychosexual thriller aspect aside, it's the ensemble that makes Saltburn so damn satisfying. Richard E. Grant is the Catton family patriarch who is as out of touch with reality as one would expect of a man who has never had to hold his own umbrella. Fennell's previous leading actress, Carey Mulligan, pops in with a fun cameo as the flighty family friend. Archie Madekwe plays Farleigh, one of the Catton cousins who is just as much an outsider as Oliver. Alison Oliver's Venetia is a tragic, dangerous creature wrapped in beautiful trappings. She walks the line between predator and prey as the film progresses. Elordi plays Felix as an aloof, but charming young man who isn't the sharpest tool in the shed, not that it matters. He's rich and hot, which is all he needs to get by in life, or so he thought until Ollie came around. Each manages to be memorable whether they are on screen for 3 minutes or almost the entire film.
Then there is Elsbeth (Rosamund Pike), the matriarch of the Catton family, who is unintentionally funny, and seemingly harmless, that is until she casually delivers malicious commentary about those around her. Pike steals every scene she is in, with her bright yet icy stares and breathy tone. She delivers her quips with a sweet smile and razor-sharp cruelty. You don't know whether to feel sorry for her and her lack of human emotions or to laugh at how, like her husband, ridiculously removed she is from anything remotely resembling feelings.
Keoghan blows them all away, with the exception being Pike. In another Oscar-worthy performance, Keoghan plays Oliver as an unassuming and harmless young man before allowing the darkness to seep through to the surface. This complexity makes him both enticing and dangerous, far past morally grey– this man's heart is as black as they come. But his motives are never all that clear. Is it love? Envy? Hatred? Lust? Or something else entirely? Keoghan throws himself into his performance, never shying away from the true nature of Oliver, daring the audience to do the same. Oliver is an enigma and Keoghan relishes in each guise Oliver dons, keeping us guessing as to who the real Oliver might be.
Carnal desires and obsession go hand and hand. In this case sex is not necessarily about pleasure, rather it is a weapon to be wielded and Oliver does so with expert marksmanship. Scenes that range from kinky to graphic, and naughty to alarming are bound to elicit a gasp or two. Shocking as they may be, they aren't there for the sake of filling out the R rating, but rather correlate with Oliver's mind and objectives. Keoghan isn't timid in these moments either, carrying himself with all the poise and confidence of a boarding school rich kid.
A devilishly addictive Gothic satire, Saltburn is an intriguing, alluring, visceral portrayal of extravagance, envy, want, and revenge. It isn't afraid to show the darkness that can lurk within any of us and how if we let it out, it can burn everything around us to the ground. Saltburn is not for the casual moviegoer, but if you're into an unapologetic, thrilling, witty, and damning look at human nature, then this is the film for you. It is as enticing as it is dark, full of desire and rage with performances that make it impossible to look away and is likely to keep you coming back for more.
Saltburn is in theaters now. It is rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, some disturbing violent content, and drug use with a runtime of 2 hours and 11 minutes.