Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn is a stylish, posh, and resoundingly hollow trip through the lifestyles of the rich and wannabe elites. While it looks every bit the attitude it’s trying to convey, Saltburn has layers of artifice that cover an empty shell devoid of original or captivating ideas. Fennell revels in excess and tries to comment on it, but none of it lands outside of the performances and lavish production value. There’s no filler, but also no genuine substance. It’s just mean for the sake of being mean, while constantly and falsely insisting that it’s somehow meaningful. It’s not. Saltburn, for all of its more obvious strengths, is a dull and drawn out mess that makes debauchery feel like a carefully calculated lesson plan in its most boring moments and like some sort of diary where a teenager writes down their erotic fantasies whenever it tries to have a pulse.
Barry Keoghan stars as Oliver Quick, a first year “Norman-no-friends” attending Oxford University. He’s shy, awkward, kinda creepy looking, and his only friend on campus is nerdier and more awkward than he is. But one day, he shows an act of kindness towards hunky BMOC Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) and makes a new friend. Both grateful and feeling sorry for Oliver, who’s had a bad run of luck over the course of the school year, Felix invites his new bestie to spend the summer at his family’s luxurious estate, Saltburn. While there Oliver is introduced to Felix’s gossiping, braggart mother (Roasmund Pike), his academically minded father (Richard E. Grant), and his troubled, sexually experienced sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver). He also has to steer clear of Felix’s conniving, catty, and condescending cousin, Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), who never liked Oliver to begin with. While at Saltburn, Oliver’s confidence begins to grow, and he starts integrating himself into the family like he’s always been there. But Oliver is hiding secrets that could change the destiny and welfare of the wealthy Catton family forever.
Saltburn exudes fussily composed, ugly elegance right from the start, and the visuals are certainly on point. While it’s far from the first time a filmmaker has made a stately looking film about people continually doing ugly, reprehensible, boundary pushing things to each other, Fennell makes sure that the contrast is noticeable and unsubtle in the best of ways. Old buildings are shot from every possible angle to take in all of the art work, wood panelling, and trinkets that abound these wealthy spaces. The skies are either uniquely cloudy, lavender tinted at magic hour, or blinding with sunlight. Parties are thrown with no expenses spared. Oliver’s manner of dress, even at his fanciest, makes him stand out amid the composure of all around him. Even a streak of poop in a toilet or a bunch of vomit that didn’t quite make it in the sink are so perfectly framed that they don’t feel out of place in Fennell’s array of visuals.
But while Fennell (who’s following up her successful, and admittedly much better directorial debut Promising Young Woman) understands the world she wants to convey, one wonders if she knows what she wants to do with it all outside of a basic plot revolving around privilege, sex, and rampant desire for creature comforts. It might be hard to see where Saltburn is headed at first, but it’s even harder to care about where it leads. All of the characters are unlikable across the board, which isn’t a dealbreaker when making something that’s trying to be deliberately mean and button pushing, but their souls are also null sets. They don’t particularly have light or darkness within them, nor do they really have any arcs to speak of outside of Oliver and Farleigh. They’re just a bundle of half-hearted, barely integrated traits that are on hand to react to whatever’s happening at any given moment with appropriate awe, joy, or disgust. It misses the target of being provoking, and instead comes across as robotic.
Fennell’s script has a lot of snarling, but no bite, with the filmmaker abandoning a lot of the trademark wit they’re known for in favour of showing off their technical skills behind the camera. Showing off is just fine for most films about characters that love to show off, but that’s all there is on display here. Fennell’s observations about the ultra-wealthy are base and uninspired, as is the trajectory of Oliver, which is appropriated from a much better movie/novel. (If I mention which one, that gives the whole thing away.) By constantly taking the easy road with her jabs and barbs, Fennell renders any senses of humour, tenderness, eroticism, suspense, and dark satire inert. Saltburn is a film where a lot of crazy things happen, but almost none of it is very interesting, and once the big twist is revealed (well before the actual ending), almost all satire has been replaced in favour of a story pivot that holds some emotional truth, but also comes across as somewhat tacky and out of step with all that came before it.
The cast has certainly come to play, though, and they often make Fennell’s material appear better than it is in some of the film’s more noteworthy moments. Keoghan’s full and unabashed commitment to his role is admirable, further establishing him as one of the most interesting and enigmatic performers working today. Elordi, Madekwe, and Oliver all get their moments to shine, even if one wishes that all of their characters were given just a little more depth than what the viewer gets to see (especially Elordi, who looks hot and is given the shortest end of the stick in terms of getting useable material). Grant is almost entirely wasted, but he’s a performer capable of getting a chuckle out of even the most tossed off of facial expressions. And Pike gets to have a great showing here as the one character who has seemingly been given all of Fennell’s funniest lines of dialogue.
But try as they might, and despite Fennell’s formidable chops as a director, Saltburn evaporates on screen. The first half says the rich are the problem with the world today, the second half says the middle class are just as much to blame, and by the end the whole thing is a moot point. For all of its sweat-soaked, gender fluid sexuality, resounding string heavy passages of scoring, period appropriate needle drops to evoke its mid-2000s setting, and full on walkthroughs of the titular mansion (not once, but twice), Saltburn never decides on what sort of conversation it wants to start. It’s clear that Fennell has a lot of strong feelings she wants to work out with Saltburn, but the larger points are completely loss under an avalanche of artistic artifice. Saltburn is a film about feeling empty that forgets that viewers need an adequate point of view to fill that void of nothingness and make it feel meaningful, profound, sinister, or funny. It’s not one of the worst films of the year, but certainly one of the most disappointing.
Saltburn opens in theatres everywhere on Wednesday, November 22, 2023.
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