Review | Saltburn | 2023
Despite being nominated for a slew of Oscars (even winning one for Best Original Screenplay), Emerald Fennell's Promising Young Woman is perhaps one of the most divisive films of the COVID-era, inspiring passionate discourse on Twitter both positive and negative.
As someone who fell more in the negative camp, finding it mostly dishonest and thematically disjointed, I had trepidations about Fennell's new film, Saltburn, which has proven to be just as divisive as her first feature. Unfortunately, Saltburn suffers from many of the same issues that plagued Promising Young Woman. It's a stylish but ultimately empty film that feels more preoccupied with being a prude's idea of transgressive at the expense of its thematic integrity.
The film centers around Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), an impoverished scholarship student at Oxford who befriends wealthy aristocrat Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), who begins to feel sorry for his friend's difficult circumstances and invites him to spend the summer at his family's sprawling country estate, Saltburn. What begins as an idyllic summer for the pair soon begins to turn dark, as Oliver's obsession with Felix threatens to tear the family apart, and end the mansion's tenuous, isolated peace.
Saltburn feels like its going into similar "eat the rich" territory as films like Ready or Not or even Knives Out, but Fennell veers into something else entirely as Oliver's machinations become more and more sinister. Unfortunately, the point she's trying to make feels lost in the film's excesses. It certainly looks gorgeous, Linus Sandgren's cinematography captures some indelible images and Anthony Willis' score brings more gravity to the proceedings than they really deserve. But it's ultimately Brideshead Revisited by way of American Psycho, less self important perhaps than Promising Young Woman, but every bit as thematically muddled. Even its climax largely apes Promising Young Woman's final reveal. Are we supposed to be disgusted by Oliver? Are we supposed to be rooting for him? Perhaps both? Saltburn doesn't seem to know either. His wealthy targets seem aloof and out of touch, but he's such an oily, reprehensible character than the conflict feels inert. It so desperately wants to be a wicked, sexy little thriller, but it comes across as so staid and self conscious, desperate to impress while saying much less than it seems to think it is with its slapdash symbolism. Fennell certainly has an eye for striking imagery, but has unfortunately yet to deploy it in a way that feels thematically coherent.