It’s 2023 and the early 2000s are having a moment: blog rock is being celebrated, nü metal is back, and Emerald Fennell––perhaps recognizing this vibe shift––sets her latest film Saltburn in 2006. The period setting is a wise move on a few fronts: it affords the film a killer soundtrack of early cuts from MGMT, Arcade Fire, and Bloc Party. It also lets these teenagers party and have sex without doing the verbal dance that accompanies such topics on campus these days.
Its setup is familiar: first-year Oxford student Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is an outsider, his one “friend” a mental math savant who is more realistic about their dire social prospects. Oliver, refusing to accept this, eventually falls in with the cool kids, led by Felix (Jacob Elordi, 2023’s Elvis). Felix is everything Oliver is not: tall, rich, effortlessly handsome, confident enough to rock an eyebrow piercing. He prioritizes partying over studying. Keoghan’s listed 5’8” height looks ridiculous next to Elrodi’s 6’5”. In fact, the camera seems to perform visual tricks to make Oliver appear shorter than nearly everyone he encounters, literalizing his diminutive status amongst the rich and famous.
It’s easy to see why his teenage classmates flock towards Felix. The casting of Keoghan, on the other hand, is more of an open question. In 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (a clear reference point), Matt Damon’s ordinariness is used to great effect. Keoghan as Ripley stand-in Oliver is more overtly unsettling; characters clock this throughout. It becomes harder to square why they confide in him or let him roam their spaces so freely. If suspicions tell them something is amiss, why so permissive?
Fennell’s follow-up to 2020’s Promising Young Woman, which won her a Best Screenplay Oscar, is scaled-up in every fashion: Suzie Davies’ production design is decadent; Linus Sandgren’s camera freely traverses Oxford grounds before moving to the somehow-more-impressive titular estate in the film’s second half. Keoghan’s face is often seen in extreme close-up carrying a red hue, reflecting an epidermis unprepared for extended poolside hangs and more geared for library sessions, even during summertime. (Oliver’s Oxford tutor is astounded to hear that he read the entire “optional” summer reading list: “The King James Bible is on there!” he exclaims, granting us our first moment in which a character peers at Oliver as if he’s an alien.)
Saltburn confidently takes its time getting over to the lavish Saltburn estate that Felix’s family occupies and which Oliver is invited to join for the summer. Here the cast expands and settles down: Richard E. Grant, never not having fun in this type of role, is the father, Sir James. Rosamund Pike is Felix’s mother whose lack of filter leads her to admit a complete intolerance of physical ugliness moments after meeting Oliver. Alison Oliver is younger sister Venetia, sulking around, provocatively trying to force Oliver to notice her. Promising Young Woman lead Carey Mulligan pops up briefly as a tatted, glamorous addict mooching off Felix’s familial wealth. The proceedings get more openly satirical here and while the jokes are hit-or-miss, Fennell displays an innate talent for staging comedy.
From time to time Saltburn will insert a knowingly shocking sequence. Without spoiling, these involve: bath water, period blood, a gravesite, and naked dancing. On some level these moments do their job––they are pretty damn weird. Yet they ring false, mostly by how they’re couched within the narrative––there is no motivating factor for these scenes to exist. The debate over art that’s shocking for its own sake is one I am more sympathetic toward. (At the very least I think it’s a real debate.) So while these moments feel engineered to shock and create headlines, the lack of driving character motivations leave them playing out empty and cheap.
Saltburn is good, dumb fun: a slick, serviceable thriller that goes down easy. Its early-2000s indie-rock playlist hits, and the party montages––first at Oxford, then Saltburn––suggest it’s a blast to be young and rich in England. The class-satire elements within a classic insider-outsider narrative act as familiar comfort. It’s when Fennell must forge her own path in the final act that she falters. To put it simply: landing the plane is hard. Whether to differentiate itself from persistent Talented Mr. Ripley comparisons––or maybe because Fennell just loves a good third-act reveal––it’s impossible not to sense the film completely slipping from her once the narrative begins unveiling a bold set of reveals in this final third. Nuance is destroyed from characters’ previous actions and the facade is disrupted, forcing one to consciously reckon with the “dumb” in “good, dumb fun.”
Saltburn premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and opens on November 24.