This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. The gateway to great art lies in caring for the artist.
A delicious sort of contradiction in Saltburn sets the tone for the entire film. Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, “Saltburn” refers to the palatial estate inhabited by Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), and the rest of their eccentric family. “Salt burn” can also refer to the process that happens when cooking a fish in salt. The process restricts salt from penetrating the fish, making sure the dish doesn’t come out too salty. The salt is part of the dish without breaking inside. However, the most fitting and literal definition of “Saltburn” is Sealt-Burna or “Salty Stream.” Given that the castle is inland and surrounded by freshwater, it may seem like a misnomer until one considers the taste of blood.
Saltburn channels The Talented Mr. Ripley though more disturbing and unsettling. It’s a clear homage but lovingly elevated with a deft hand. Fennell takes the sensibilities of Ripley and asks, what if Tom Ripley was a student at Euphoria? Swapped out for the Italian seaside, the English country of idyllic streams and dark gothic ambiance are the locales for this screenplay. The scenery sets the mood for a more macabre journey, and with higher stakes (and somehow even more moral quandaries).
How’s the Peepin’, Olly?
Fennell won an Oscar for her most notable outing, 2020’s Promising Young Woman. That movie told the tale of a modern-day hero who turned the tables on rapists and molesters. Fennell aptly allows the realization of the ending, but also allows the viewer to build – however futile – enough hope to think, “Well, maybe she got a new identity and she’s fine?!” In Saltburn foreshadowing remains, and yet the reveals still gut punch, and hard.
The action opens with Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) as he’s about to start school at Oxford. He shows up like every British gay university drama. Whether it’s History Boys, Maurice, or Another Country, as soon as Oliver arrives on a bike wearing a jacket and tie and is instantly sneered at by returning students, it serves to follow that some melodramatic homosexual longing awaits. Lo and behold, one day he becomes the unwitting savior to the most beautiful and popular boy on campus, Felix Cattan. Felix just so happens to be a rich kid with a heart of gold who tries his best to make his friend group accept the poor, poor Olly.
The double entendre stands as Felix invites Oliver to drink with his friends and can’t afford a round. Felix then rescues him, and the cat-and-mouse game begins. All of this chagrins Felix’s cousin Farleigh who has already had less than exciting interactions with Oliver. It’s an interesting dynamic as Farleigh wasn’t born into the status of the family. His mother was the sister of the Cattan patriarch, Sir James (the enigmatic Richard E. Grant.) She was seemingly disinherited but appealed to Sir James to take care of Farleigh’s schooling. On one hand, Farleigh knows how to spot an imposter, but part of this knowledge comes from being one himself. Oliver won’t forget that trait.
As Olly and Felix get closer, they near the end of the school year going through several phases of friendship. By the end of the term, they are well mended and Felix invites Olly to Saltburn to meet Sir James, the matriarch Elsbeth Catton (Rosamund Pike), her best frenemy “Poor, Dear” Pamela (Carey Mulligan star of Fennell’s Promising Young Woman. It’s also worth noting this is the way Pamela’s name appears in the end credits), and Felix’s sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver).
Upon arrival, Oliver becomes the eyes of the audience, taking in the splendor of Saltburn and getting an intimate look into the lives of the blissfully rich and oblivious.
Fennell explores this through hypocrisy-laden scenes that keep the audience’s opinion of the family in constant shift. Elsbeth is a vicious gossip who will smile love and adoration to someone's face and then tear him apart the second he leaves the room. Sir James detaches and appears to star in a sitcom of his life or a (presently) non-murderous episode of The White Lotus. Venetia doesn’t pretend to be anything but what she is – a disappointment to her mother and invisible to their father. She says early on that she sees why Felix took such a liking to Oliver” “It’s because you’re… real.” While she says this with words, her eyes confess that she doesn’t trust him, but she’s willing to see what happens.
Speaking of Felix and his Dickie-like fascinations, he’s a simple character who believes himself deep and layered. He wants to be a good person. Elsbeth says to him, “You’re kind about everyone; you can’t be trusted,” immediately after Felix has spilled Oliver’s secrets, which he knows she will dissect. Perhaps closer to the truth is that Felix wants to appear good since he lacks the capacity to be genuinely selfless. However, his ostentatious upbringing can’t help but show through his veiled attempts at “kindness.” Olly adds this characteristic to his collection of memories.
How’s the Peepin’?
It’s easy to love an “eat the rich” story and at its heart, Saltburn encourages viewers to start snacking. All Oliver wants to be noticed, to be loved and liked by someone he considers above himself. He and Felix form a “maybe some gay?” relationship. Oliver becomes obsessed with who Felix is, what Felix is, where Felix is, and so on. If Oliver must choose between wearing Felix’s skin as his own or making passionate love to him, the answer is an enthusiastic both. And there’s a part of Felix that revels in hero worship, but that same adulation makes him wary. Several characters warn Oliver that Felix will bore him, but Felix knows how to build walls when things get too intense, especially as Olly’s behavior becomes more unhinged.
The young men have a kind of push and pull where, on the one hand, Oliver has had a tough life, and on the other hand, this tranquil, if wealthy, family suddenly faces this kid wreaking havoc. It’s hard to know who to root for, who to feel sorry for, who to invest in. Again, Fennel has braced the audience for the entire film. The viewer knows what will happen and hopes that even amidst the twists and turns the ending will satisfy. It does, but it also will leave viewers unsettled with a touch of melancholy. If the mark of a good film is one that sticks with you, then Saltburn certainly delivers on the premise. It’s a good film, but loses its way about three-quarters through.
Olly, Olly, Olly!
The confusion comes in the form of Oliver’s characterization. Barry Keoghan has shown himself to be an incredible young actor, and he does a truly remarkable job here. His face evokes the innocence of Jonathan Taylor Thomas mixed with the cynical bitterness of a millennial. Keoghan plays Oliver with a sort of false naivete. On the outside he’s bumbling, awkward, and boring, but inside, he’s conniving, shrewd, a little insane, and a lot delusional, but he makes it work. The audience meets the “Olly” that Oliver wants people to see, but in doing so, shields the Oliver that viewers will never know. In order to get on board with the rest of the film and understand the paths he chooses, the true Oliver must step forward. Fennell spends the first half hour of the film in the school establishing Oliver’s place on the social strata, and his refusal to accept it. Only after a lot of filler do Oliver and Felix meet, but during this time (at the 20-minute mark, I wrote in my notes, “I hope all of this setup is worth it”), we still never get Oliver.
Even 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, has a clear motive for Martin’s (Keoghan) infiltration into the hapless family. The lack of this information here makes Oliver’s actions and choices foreign, which can lead to some frustration. Fennell likely does this to shield a late-stage reveal .To make up for this, the film creates grandiose scenes of privilege that keep the viewer guessing. In a Lifetime movie, this kind of misdirection can be fun. But in this nuanced and layered exploration of class—those who have it, and those who seek to take it–it’s a bit of a disservice. Fennell does a marvelous job writing and directing the film. There are gorgeous turns of phrase, and Saltburn offers a feast for the eyes. That said, it’s also a feast that’s so indulgent and decadent, that it may leave viewers feeling a bit queasy.
Saltburn is a film by Amazon Studios and officially premiered at Telluride in August of 2023. It will have a limited run in the United Kingdom on November 17th, then will expand wide on November 24th. The perfect Thanksgiving treat (or perhaps Black Friday).
Score: 7/10 SPECS
Stacey Yvonne - Critic on Beyonce's Internet
Hailing from the mild, mild Midwest, I knew I would be Los Angeles bound and before I knew it, I was in the wild west! I'm an entertainment journalist, TV & Film critic, moderator and red carpet reporter. I write for sites like Black Girl Nerds, The Geekiary, Out.com and The Cherry Picks. I love elevating Black, female and queer voices. I graduated suma cum laude from the school of hard knocks and just finished my PhD program in "These Streets". Looking forward to passing on my knowledge to all of you fine folk.