Written and directed by Emerald Fennell
By the time I've gotten around to it, Saltburn has already proven itself—and I expect I'll wonder forever and ever how this could have happened to this movie—to be one of the more divisive efforts of the awards seasons of 2023, with two camps forming on the film, split between proponents, who don't always make the best case for it on account of often being teenagers, as normal as you find these days, who enjoyed the grandly superficial sordidness of its young adult melodramatics, and say things like "hell yeah I'd drink the cum out of his bathwater," and detractors, who latch onto complaints that I think they've largely invented, or at least exist mostly to the side of the movie itself.
Those complaints will vary in their priority by the person making them, though people who hate Saltburn will usually get to every last one of them if you have the patience to wait—it's not about class right; it's not gay right; it's just a movie version of a [reference to Internet phenomena such as "Instagram mood boards" that I neither understand nor care to, except to perceive it's plainly gender-coded]; its maker comes from a privileged background, unlike most Hollywood filmmakers, who, as we all know, are otherwise all hardscrabble refugees from the global south; worse than that, it not merely fails to be mind-blowingly original, it's directly comparable to several other movies made in the past hundred years—but what is absolutely clear from all this is that I did myself and, it seems, Saltburn's writer-director Emerald Fennell a real favor here, by never bothering to watch her Oscar-nominated debut feature, 2021's Promising Young Woman, because I thought it sounded obnoxious. Yet because everyone, to this day, has been incredibly cavalier about spoiling everything that happens in that movie (they're incredibly cavalier about this one, too, not even treating it like a movie you might see, and again, I really, really, really wonder why), I acquired what I thought was a pretty good sense of how the rape-revengey Promising Young Woman "subverted" its genre mostly how a smart-alec kid might do while idly pitching joke ideas to their stoned friends, along the lines of, "lol, what if, instead of super-powers, Spider-Man got cancer?" Didn't sound interesting to me at the time and, frankly, it still doesn't.
The stumbling block that Fennell seems to have chucked into her own path—besides deciding in her mother's ampulla to have a vagina, in case I've been too subtle about that—is that she built a reputation on being the writer-director who makes Oscar-grasping social statements, and while I don't think Saltburn is devoid of such things, it seems a lot more like a sophomore filmmaker who'd kickstarted a career by telling you to eat your vegetables and do your homework (and, presumably, not rape people), but now, having acquired notoriety the 2020s way, she wanted to do something actually fun, under the impression that this would be allowed. Well, let's take it as we find it: the goal here, I think, was to pitch some red meat to an audience raised on teen soaps and slash fiction—now I'm gender-coding it, but I'm not using it as a cudgel, am I?—and the college-aged erotic thriller thing she made is not, it's true, any profound statement on society, though I strongly suspect it has some autobiographical resonance with Oxford-educated Fennell herself, in ways prone to be misinterpreted. I'm open to correction here if I don't understand the English class system that well myself, but it seems like there's a serious tendency (born out of the usual "not liking a movie means the movie is counter-revolutionary" logic we all love to see) to switch around whom Fennell, the daughter of a successful artisan and entrepreneur*, would "be" in her story, if it is indeed "about" her in any way, on account of many Americans refusing to understand class except in simplified, American terms.**
Now, yes, it does have its real problems. But for now, let's meet Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), a young man graduating from Oxford in 2006 (and we'll get the not-really-a-big-problem out the way, namely that, at any closer than fifty paces, Keoghan is very visibly not 22). Both ill-schooled in the ways of the upper crust and kind of a dweeb on his merits, he's failed pretty comprehensively at fitting in with his new milieu, until by an act of, let's say, kindness, he ingratiates himself to Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), the Ferris Bueller of Oxford, Oliver's crush and so much more than that word "crush" could imply. He attaches himself to Felix with as much lamprey strength as he possesses, despite Felix already beginning to tire of the obligation he represents, and despite the unconcealed disdain and bigotry of all of Felix's established friends, including both of Felix's girlfriends and his half-American cousin, Farleigh (Archie Medekwe). It's only through pure pity, engendered by the death of Oliver's father, that Oliver manages to secure an invitation to summer at Felix's aristocratic abode, the titular Saltburn, a vast estate out in the country somewhere (presumably played by one of those museum houses where the British state keeps its more decadent aristocrats like a declining species in a nature preserve). There Oliver makes the acquaintance of Felix's mother Elsmuth (Rosamund Pike) and father Sir James (Richard E. Grant) and sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), and renews the enmity of Farleigh, and appears to only not elicit cartoonishly large eyerolls from the butler Duncan (Paul Rhys) because Duncan is too professional to do so to Oliver's face. But he does manage to make himself just likeable enough to the family to, ultimately, do some real damage.
So this is likely to remind you of a number of things, but that's alright, that's what "genre" means. Where Saltburn does bog down, a little, is that it is—rather deliberately—reluctant to choose what genre it actually is, or at least it's reluctant to devote itself to it. It was never going to be a surprise where this ends up, and, in fairness, that's never what Fennell is attempting to do anyway—the movie has a (sparingly-used) framing device, wherein Keoghan almost mockingly tells us we shouldn't be surprised—but Fennell has, nevertheless, elected to structure her movie around the idea that, theoretically, you could be surprised. And you know what? In a vacuum, I'll happily spot her this. After all, one of the least likeable things genre can do is not actually bother pretending you've haven't seen it all before, and Fennell makes some herculean efforts to pretend, withholding enormous amounts of information on behalf of several twists in service to one big twist, some of which are genuine surprises on their own, but the overall shape of which isn't even really close.
It's disagreeably artificial in its manufacture as a result, and this isn't nothing, though maybe the bigger issue is that a long stretch of the movie is spent sort of just... meandering through its characters and setting and not-quite-a-plot-yet, attempting to maneuver between fully three different modes—college sex comedy, sour class satire, and gonzo psychological thriller—while looking and feeling pretty much exclusively like the latter two, and mostly just the thriller even then (and if that implies Saltburn isn't funny, by all means it can be funny, but probably less so than I think it wants to be, and much more smirkingly than uproariously when it is). Still, some of this is even a good thing, as Fennell wants to capture a miserable college experience giving way to a languid, horny summer in an evil castle, and this is a vibe she and her photographer, Linus Sandgren, successfully seize upon. And Saltburn looks positively terrific: presented in a curious 1.33:1 ratio that has its strengths—emphasizing faces, and emphasizing even more the headspace often found above those faces, with empty stretches of frame that are not to all tastes, but I think do get across a nice, hanging sense of doom—and the real star is Sandgren's lighting, which ranges from cozily tasteful to phantasmogorically lurid over the course of the film, and at every turn manifesting as luxury porn that's hollow and spiritually ugly but still sells the obsessive desire to have it. (I wish Fennell and Sandgren were less afraid of deep focus two-shots, but it's 2023 and we don't get to have those so much anymore.) Editor Victoria Boydell, for her part, is remarkably good at keeping this snappy even when the screenplay is not being snappy, and flagging in the middle stretch.
Which is as much to say, Saltburn demonstrably doesn't need all of that screenplay to get to where Fennell wants it to go, and some of it is outright begging to be cut, though I suppose that even two people who both liked the movie might well fail to agree on precisely what. (For example, I would not dream of cutting one of the more textured moments, found in a montage, wherein Oliver, despite being by any metric a more diligent student, is completely ignored, in favor of Farleigh's more sparkling personality and more noble heritage, by their literature tutor; whereas you might dispute my own preference to cast into nameless oblivion every last trace of Oliver's twerpish "real" friend at Oxford (Ewan Mitchell), whom we are invited to understand on some intellectual level has been "betrayed" when Oliver joins up with the Plastics, but is such an atrocious little pill of a person that I can't imagine anyone watching this actually countenancing the possibility of hanging out with him themselves, or not rooting for Oliver to escape him.)
Fennell has sensed that this absence of shape has given her a movie a shambling quality that, let's be real here, could even get boring, given the intentional emptiness of these characters. She has a plan for this contingency: during the middle hour of this 131 minute movie that undoubtedly didn't need to be more than 110, about every fifteen of them she inflicts something weird and provocative onto the film, at something like a right angle to it. And, in the absence of a tighter structure, they do feel a bit like weird provocation for its own sake—that is, goosing you into continuing to pay attention and remembering the "cool" parts after the movie's over—though I generally like these gestures because I do, in fact, like to remember cool parts. Given that the other mode of criticism this movie has garnered can be boiled down to "a bunch of virgins on the Internet sneering about how this movie didn't shock them," I'm willing to appreciate that "secretly watching your crush masturbate into his bathwater and slurping the drain after he's left" is, indeed, both weird and provocative, though I admit I had expected this scene to be cummier. (Then again, a similar, less-talked-about scene for our evil bisexual—not that "bisexual" is the proper framing, almost to the point of it being disingenuous—involves so much blood the question becomes "wait, are you on your period or are you having a miscarriage?") I don't adore, however, how much this can feel like this has been imposed upon the proceedings: there can be some massive lurches between the film's two distinct energy levels, "slightly heightened" and "fully abnormal," and while it finally arrives upon "fully abnormal" all the time, this is possibly not until the very last shot (but it's a tremendously long last shot, that earns every second of it). At last, Saltburn feels absolutely in tune with its purpose, and this is in part because Saltburn has by this point spent the previous twenty minutes barfing up its non-secrets. Maybe it's the only way it could've had the giddy impact it does, I don't know; but a whole movie that had the same loopiness that Fennell hits us with for her "Risky Business ain't got nothing on me" finale would have been a movie I'd be bouncing off the walls to tell you about, rather than just something I'm warmly disposed to.
So that's the effect that this somewhat cumbersome narrative gambit has, but the intent (again, largely theoretically) is to keep you from fixating on the streak of nastiness that Oliver has that's at least every bit as wide as his aristocratic targets. The idea that this was hidden became deeply notional (and I would have to assume Fennell was completely aware of this) the instant Barry Keoghan showed up on screen, which is partly why I'm of two minds about it: I respect the strategy, but I don't know if it was ever necessary. Keoghan always remains, despite his Keoghan-y unctuousness, exactly sympathetic enough to keep him an ideal vehicle for irresponsible, antisocial fantasy and for the relatability of inwardly wishing all sorts of unspeakable horrors upon people for purely social slights—I think Keoghan is positively great here, for the record, perhaps fittingly the only member of the cast whose performance fully extends beyond a stereotyped sketch, even if fundamentally Oliver shouldn't be able to do that (arguably Elordi does, too, but only in that his dream bro is so gauzy in Oliver's view that he can't quite be called "a sketch of an aristocratic asshole barely even trying to conceal that any politeness to Oliver isn't self-regarding noblesse oblige," and so can therefore manage the occasional human semblance). Keoghan, anyway, is game enough to make something very natural to his character out of even the most insectoid paces that Fennell puts him through in pursuit of all those "be weird, provoke somebody!" flourishes that keep the audience's blood up during the slow patches.
And so that's my biggest complaint: that Fennell should have trusted in Keoghan and in Oliver's freakish appeal, since that's so clearly where her instincts lay, anyhow. (I've had an argument about this, but up until a certain point, the bad things he does are still painfully understandable and human. And I think I can make a cogent argument that shoving the more minor transgressions into a Usual Suspects explainer module at the end indicates a certain calculation, basically an escape hatch for Fennell to take so she could hide in "ah, you thought he was the hero? no, it's all satire.") Anyway, this is especially true given that, unless I miss my mark very badly, these are funhouse mirror reflections of her own resentments and insecurities as a perfectly well-off kid who found herself surrounded by literal lords in her own youth, these resentments and insecurities now offered in a gender-swapped package for the extra fun of playing around with a masculinized version of a typically feminine dynamic, all channeled through a scenario that at least makes a case for the immensity of Oliver's vengefulness against people who have never seen him as human, so at some point he's made the decision to stop being one. I wish the movie were as ruthless as Oliver, but I like what we got.
*A designer of fancy spoons, apparently. Um, whatever. I really have no idea how rich her family is, but there's a strain of hostility that treats Fennell as some unholy combo of Tori Spelling and Elon Musk, and I'm very sure that's not fair. Meanwhile, and I don't want to make this a text version of a grueling YouTube video essay, but if one accepts that women have a harder time of it in the industry, then one would expect (though I don't even know if this is statistically true) the ones who make it would come from comparatively privileged backgrounds. So, like, just fucking chill out.
**Which means they oversimplify American class too, but that's way beyond our ambit here.