Emerald Fennell’s second feature, Saltburn, washes over your senses and can overload in moments. Not in a negative sense, but more so a tip to the cap of her visual sense of storytelling alongside the framing of cinematography of Linus Sandgren. When the weather is hot, you feel the heat radiating off people, objects, and outside the windows of rooms. If something is unkempt, there’s no gloss to make it look “Hollywood” clean. If something or someone is out of place, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
I wouldn’t particularly look at the plot of Saltburn as being subtle, as its message is loud, clear, and often shocking, perhaps to a fault. Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) arrives at Oxford University in 2006; he sticks out like a sore thumb. Big glasses, a proper suit that gives off the “I’m here to get my study on” vibes outside a student populous that might fit into any Abercrombie and Fitch advertisement.
Oliver struggles to make any inroads in making friends, and a guy named Felix (Jacob Elordi) catches his eye. He’s the belle of the ball, some might say, the epicenter of charisma and likability, and it all comes easy to him. The first piece of dialogue the audience hears from Oliver’s perspective is claiming that he loved Felix, but wondering if he was, in fact, in love with him.
Everything Oliver seems to want to be, Felix holds onto with an iron grip. But it just so happens Felix also has a good heart (of course). When they meet, Oliver speaks of his strict background, where his parents aren’t able to be active in his life due to various drug addictions. He’s a scrappy fellow that Felix allows to be in the inner circle, to the annoyance of his cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe). As Felix and Oliver develop their friendship, school breaks out for the summer – then comes the golden ticket. Felix gives the invite of a lifetime – for Oliver to stay at his massive English countryside mansion, Saltburn. Saltburn is both a place and a vibe, and Ferrell uses a Talented Mr. Ripley template to excoriate the themes of wealth and excess.
This place is a palace once impenetrable for someone like Oliver, and he’s given the keys to the castle. Soon, Oliver meets Felix’s more than outlandish family members like his mother, Lady Elsbeth (exquisitely funny Rosamund Pike), father Sir James (Richard E Grant), and sister Venetia (Alison Oliver). Carey Mulligan also makes a brief, but memorable cameo as long-term pitied house guest Pamela. It doesn’t take long for Oliver to fit in. Soon, the young people fall into the routine of playing tennis, partying, sunbathing, and such.
Things take a turn during the second half of Saltburn. As I said earlier, the film doesn't leave your mind to languish in mystery. Oliver begins to have a small fling with Venetia, and it even feels like the family has accepted him as a pseudo-surrogate. That’s when the tales about his background start to crack due to a thoughtful gesture Felix tries to make. Eat-the-rich plots usually work to make the audience despise the hierarchy. Why do they have what I don’t and almost flaunt it in our faces?
The thing is, the Catton family aren’t unlikable. They seem very generous, opening their homes for people to stay and accepting of outsiders. It renders edgier scenes during the second act and beyond ineffective. Barry Keoghan’s portrayal of Oliver is as good as you would expect it to be. His unbeknownst and nonconfident mannerisms slowly change as Saltburn goes on. It then becomes more curious and menacing stares paired with a drunkness of how being with the cool kids feels like. Jacob Elordi comes off as naturally cool as Felix. He’s not putting on a front, just simply what the cards gave him.
It’s not that Saltburn doesn’t have smart observations, rather than discards them very quickly. Something speaks to who is afforded this opportunity to stay at a 2000s version of Camelot as someone like Farleigh, who is of a middle-income and mixed-race background, feels like he’s one infraction from being sent home. But it feels as though the film pulls you in two directions, asking you to keep an eye on this outsider and feeling some contempt for these people with a massive amount of fortune. That lack of definition leads Saltburn astray rather than leads you to satisfaction with its final note.