If Cruel Intentions and Brideshead Revisited were burned to ashes then laced with acid and smoked, you’d get the sensation of Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman follow-up, Saltburn. A constantly-shocking look at the sickeningly wealthy and privileged, it’s a film that never fails to titillate with its posh presentation and characters fueled by “fuck you” money and uncontrollable desires. It’s a sophomore effort with all of the brazenness and awareness of Fennell’s debut feature, only turned toward a psychosexual revenge thriller with a venomous edge.
At some point, families are going to learn not to invite Barry Keoghan into their homes. It never turns out well. He plays Oliver Quick, a name that sounds like it was taken from a Dickens novel, a bright, shy intellectual scholarship kid newly enrolled at Oxford where the entrenched rich kids laugh and mock him. Struggling to make friends in this environment, he lucks into a chance encounter with the dreamy, delicious Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi, also seen as Elvis in Priscilla), the desire of every guy and gal on campus. When troubles at home send Oliver into an emotional tailspin, Felix, who has quickly become his best and only friend, invites him to his family’s palatial digs at Saltburn, a literal castle of British grandeur and stature.
Oliver has wormed his way into this eccentric clan with the slippery ease of Tom Ripley. Rosamund Pike is a gas as Elsbeth, Felix’s oblivious, ditzy ex-model mother whose stone-faced line delivery offers the best gags. Richard E. Grant is just as dopey as family patriarch Sir James, suit of armor and all. Felix’s emotionally broken sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) is apparently the eye of all of her brother’s annual visitors. And then there’s Felix’s best buddy and leech, Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), who recognizes in Oliver a fellow moocher with an ulterior motive. Even in a massive castle like Saltburn there can’t be room for them both. Carey Mulligan has a fun glorified cameo as Elsbeth’s attention-seeking friend, Pamela, a sadsack dressed in rainbow colors who has overstayed her welcome.
Using shadows, sharp corners, and an impressive amount of reflective surfaces, Fennell presents Saltburn as a place trapped in its own warped, perverse version of reality. While set in 2006 (we see them watching Superbad at one point), time and place seem lost in a place such as this. We expect extreme hedonistic tendencies but, despite lavish parties and no shortage of sexual escapes, the Catton home is silly but fairly reserved. It’s Oliver’s transgressive actions that push Saltburn over the edge and will test the viewer’s mettle. At times malevolent and charming, Keoghan’s performance is all-encompassing, demanding that he slurp up every drop like Oliver lapping up Felix’s dirty bathwater. It’s not the kind of role you can be non-committal to. Just as Fennell can’t risk going halfway with the full Gothic tone of the film, and yes, that is undoubtedly going to rub some people the wrong way. But the excesses are few and deliberate, revealing details about the perpetrator that help push Saltburn to a wild, unexpected conclusion.
While at times overcooked and full of itself, Saltburn is an extremely entertaining, disturbing, and weird look at the desires of both the rich and the wanting. Fennell has a need to overexplain the conclusion Paul Haggis-style, retreating to clarify past actions when an air of ambiguity is more in keeping with the film’s murky aura. But that isn’t enough to dump a bucket of cold water on the experience. Fennell luxuriates in overabundance and kink, the expert use of score and visual dexterity to set an evocative mood that gives way to lasting dread. Saltburn is imperfect, but like the titular estate it snags you in its grip and doesn’t let go, not that you’d ever want to leave in the first place.
Saltburn is in theaters now. *NOTE: This review was originally part of our 2023 Middleburg Film Festival coverage.*