Writer/director Emerald Fennell won a screenplay Oscar for her first feature film, Promising Young Woman. In that gritty, daring thriller about revenge and sexual abuse, Fennell pushed the envelope and shocked audiences with her unique aesthetic and sinister outlook. For her sophomore feature, Saltburn, Fennell significantly ups the ante.
The movie, which had its World Premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on August 31, follows a group of self-involved adolescents and their equally solipsistic parents as a sinister undertone of sexuality, obsessive desire, and betrayal pushes them all to dangerous brinks. It is twice as daring as Fennell’s first film, but the script’s familiarity and predictability renders the film slightly less impressive than the movie that won her the Academy Award.
Saltburn, which refers to the English countryside town in which most of the action takes place, opens when the slight, quiet and inherently creepy Oliver (Barry Keoghan) arriving at Oxford for college in 2006. Oliver is a social misfit, outcast to interact only with the unwanted class nerd. But Oliver, Tom Ripley style, has ambitions grander than his humbler middle class British beginnings. He soon becomes infatuated with the unofficial class king Felix (Jacob Elordi), a lothario, Don Juan that bewitches his male and female classmates alike with his disinterested demeanor and drop dead gorgeous look.
Further borrowing extensively from the Anthony Minghella queer psychosexual thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley, Fennell portrays Felix as a self-involved manipulator and Oliver as an even more cunning, but shier and therefore more dangerous, schemer. Felix is Jude Law’s Dickie and Oliver is Matt Damon’s Ripley, and when classmates and Felix’s sister warn Venezia (Alison Oliver) warn Oliver that Felix’s burning attention will one day grow ice cold, you know Fennell was heavily inspired. The action soon turns to the titular estate, where Felix’s aloof and eccentric parents, played by Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant, take the furtively quiet boy in as their son’s latest human entertainment.
As the action develops, Saltburn invites you to ponder to what end Oliver’s obvious machinations are leading him. As Oliver confesses in the film’s opening sequences, he loved Felix, but the question is whether he was in love with Felix. But the device does not quite work—in between all the enveloping pushing sexual sequences that evoke Cruel Intentions for more tolerant audiences, Oliver’s intentions are clearly telegraphed.
Each time he spies on Felix with another girl, each time he lurks in the shadows, each time he looks longingly at the riches that the Saltburn finally displays and that he does not have, you think—yes, once again—of Tom Ripley and his conniving twists to be with but also become the king of the castle. The steps he takes to get there are inherently predictable, and as much as Fennell is trying to surprise you with twists and turns, the script is never really able to do so.
But Saltburn is otherwise an excellently crafted film. For one, Keoghan turns in a career best performance as the creepy, quiet stalker that you want to but cannot ultimately feel sympathy for. His piercing gaze and curled lips make you feel as if on the perpetual edge of danger—as if some form of sexual withholding—and the film keeps you on that ledge thanks to his talents. In that sense, the movie is endlessly captivating and will keep audiences entertained the entire runtime.
Also excellent is Pike as the grotesque mother, who makes ludicrous proclamations such as about her “fear of ugliness” and that her best friend died “for attention.” In Fennell’s film, the rich are monstrous and outrageous, while the poorer are violent, envious grifters. One wonders why Fennell felt the need to further those themes outside of the context of a social commentary film but, regardless, Keoghan and Pike excel in emoting the tropes Fennell asks of them.
Below the line, Saltburn is a resounding success. Oscar winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren covers an impressive range of shadowy action, outside sequences covered in sun and pasture, and dreamlike sequences with red lights and extreme, sexualized closeups on sensual body parts. If Felix’s glistening body is the canvas, Fennell and Sandgren paint mischievously on it, forcing the audience to share in Oliver’s infatuation and animalistic desire.
A violent, exciting soundtrack with excellent pop culture incorporations punctuates the proceedings, and Saltburn’s lavish, excessive art direction, in and around the titular estate, definitely deserve an Academy Award. Victoria Boydell’s crisp and exciting editing is the cherry on top of what has to be one of the below the line masterpieces of a year that includes the likes of Oppenheimer. Fennell’s vision as a methodical filmmaker with a satisfying aesthetic is unquestionable.
The script is ultimately too familiar and the action too predictable, but the craft on display is fresh and exciting. Sensing that the story is lacking a raison d’etre, Fennell attempts to hook the audience by pushing puerility buttons, by disturbing or sickening sequences meant to keep you talking. The trick succeeds in keeping the movie stuck to your head. The film is sure to garner controversy, divisiveness, and conversation, and there can be no question that Fennell remains one of the most promising newest directors to enter the scene.
Saltburn had its World Premiere at the Telluride Film Festival and will be released by MGM on November 24, 2023.