I’m all for a whirlwind of a ride when it comes to presumed prestige films, and Saltburn happily delivers. While it can be daunting to move onto a new project that follows up a work that raised one’s profile significantly, let alone garnered them an Oscar, from where I sit, director/writer Emerald Fennell has delivered a wilder yet stronger film than the acclaimed Promising Young Woman. However, regardless of comparisons, there’s a lot of twisted fun to be had with this darkly funny, psychological gothic thriller. With a story that feels like the work of Patricia Highsmith filtered through a millennial lens, there’s a lot to appreciate about this film that extends beyond just the elaborate country house where these characters reside.
An extended first act provides some hints as to where things are going. Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is a middle-class kid who seems to define socially awkward. A chance encounter with the charming and far more popular Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) leads to a friendship that eventually finds Oliver spending his summer at Saltburn, the Catton family’s sprawling estate. Once there, Oliver finds himself playing into the various games that could be a way for this aristocratic family to pass the time. Or perhaps Oliver’s infatuation with Felix has more intentions than any of them can anticipate.
When summarizing the film, it’s easy enough to implicate Oliver in possible nefarious activities, but it’s also not entirely fair. While there may be surprises in store for viewers, Saltburn is not too quick to show its hand. At the same time, it’s not as though an audience member can’t figure out that nearly everything taking place is more than it seems. Still, this film is not presented as a mystery. It’s really more of a look at the ways obsession, manipulation, and cruelty can play on people coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
Additionally, with a particular framework in place, Fennell can explore the types of people that could live in an English country manor like Saltburn. While Flix is something of an aloof cad, Elordi does so much to make this guy feel likable and innocent. Even as we learn more about how he generally behaves with his new friends, it’s incredible to see how he can still bring people into his orbit of their own volition. The rest of his family speaks to other aspects of the wealthy.
Rosamund Pike excels as Elsbeth, Felix’s mother. As an actress typecast by Hollywood as an ice queen following Gone Girl, finding a way to break the clear confidence she generally emits and play someone so aware of their wealth yet clueless about decorum around those of a lower station is impressive. Many scenes require Pike to play into multiple emotions simultaneously, and the film is all the better for having someone who can so effectively inhabit this role.
Richard E. Grant is also on hand as Felix’s father, James. It’s a less complex role compared to nearly all the others, as the man is basically checked out, and Grant does what’s needed to make his interactions lean more on the comedic side than anything. Adding more interesting dynamics to the proceedings are Felix’s sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver), and his cousin, Farleigh (Gran Turismo star Archie Madekwe). Both have a need to prey on Oliver in their own ways. The way those interactions play out speaks all the more to why this could be a tricky film to pin down before it lays everything out on the table.
As a quick note, Carey Mulligan also shows up for a few scenes as Elsbeth’s ridiculous friend, and it’s one of the best minor role comedic performances you could ask for. It actually speaks a lot to the type of environment that’s been fostered by Saltburn. As long as one goes along with whatever nonsense traditions the family has established, they’re free to stumble in and out of the building, toss around gossip, and involve themselves in any other activities a set of bored rich people can latch onto.
All of this leads to what Barry Keoghan is bringing to the film. As the tough-to-pin-down Oliver Quick, while his name practically suggests some kind of alter ego for a superhero, this character is anything but a heroic figure. But does that mean evil lurks within him? From the top, narration attempts to establish that something’s afoot, but what is it. What are Oliver’s goals, as the film makes it hard to understand whether he’s a reliable narrator? Is he following his desires for Felix, one of the other residents of Saltburn, or just attempting to escape a much milder lifestyle?
The fact that Keoghan so effectively leans into various sorts of disposition allows him to continue standing out as one of the more exciting performers of his generation. It’s a committed performance that has all the hallmarks of a freaky sort of character that can be funny, dramatic, mischievous, threatening, and passionate in the most upsetting of ways. On top of that, the world around him changes multiple times, which presents a shift in how he needs to respond in order to keep in good favor with those he seemingly wants to please. Through all this, Keoghan creates a memorable persona, capped off by some out-there choices to sell what Oliver is all about.
Walking the line of how far one can go and still keep the audience in line is certainly what Fennell has in mind here. The same sense of daring that fueled Promising Young Woman is in place here. While it may come off messier, given the larger ensemble and concepts at play, there is room for more kinds of enjoyment. The humor comes in full force at various times throughout. Having this large estate serve as the setting for so much of the film allows for the gothic elements to stand out as well, especially given some terrific choices by cinematographer Linus Sandgren. Even while set to a deliberate pace, there’s a sense that Saltburn is continually aware of the right moment to introduce a new element that’s either outrageous or compelling enough to keep the viewer intrigued and excited by where it’s all going.
There is a sense that Fennell has taken the opportunity to throw a lot at the wall and see what sticks. Saltburn isn’t shy about delving into thoughts on class, race, gender, and sexuality, among other topics. Whether that’s handled through plot devices, metaphors, or different cinematic approaches, it can surely only mean so much if there’s not more going on with the characters or an overarching theme. However, I’d also say Fennell’s feel for cinema is Saltburn’s greatest strength. Even if the approach to its various ideas doesn’t all feel wholly fulfilled, there’s an invigorating sense that the filmmaker is working at the top of her game with a lot of great talent to deliver something lavish, audacious, and entertaining.