2020’s “Promising Young Woman” was Emerald Fennell’s filmmaking debut, a uniquely stylish and sharp-edged condemnation of rape culture. The director’s screenplay won her a well-deserved Oscar and announced a striking new voice in modern cinema. After writing six episodes of the excellent television show “Killing Eve”, Fennel is back with her sophomore directing effort, “Saltburn”, a masterfully wicked character thriller with a refreshing fearlessness that is missing from most of today’s motion pictures.
Armed with a Dickensian name and slithering around the film like a Patricia Highsmith character, Barry Keoghan is Oliver Quick, an Oxford student on scholarship who becomes fixated with wealthy and handsome schoolmate Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). Felix takes a shine to Oliver, as he sees (or it appears) the young man doesn’t have the natural charm and charisma that makes it so easy to make friends and lovers; bringing him along when drinking and partying with friends, who are put off by Oliver. Feeling sorry for him, Felix invites him to stay for the summer in his stately manor of Saltburn, a sprawling old world mansion with its own lake, meadow, and a maze right out of Stephen King’s “The Shining”, a proper comparison giving the shocking cruelty the grassy labyrinth will later reveal.
Felix proclaims his family lineage “inspired half of Evelyn Waugh’s novels.”, a claim that Fennel’s screenplay has cheeky fun once we meet this strange clan. Rosamund Pike is terrific as Felix’s mother, a woman living on her privilege and memories of being a model. Working her way around lines such as, “I have a complete and utter horror of ugliness,” the actress represents a woman detached from the reality of her world. The irony being that her unaddressed emotional loneliness is caused by the inherent ugliness of the people that surround her.
Richard E. Grant is Felix’s father, a seemingly kind man who is always one distant beat behind the conversations around him. Grant has long been a proper character actor whose presence highlights any film. As the “head” of this isolated clan, Grant holds a good deal of the film’s humor until Fennel allows us to see a man who is forced to open his eyes to the realities of his crumbling family. In the final act, the performance becomes incredibly moving in a moment that is, at once, tender and heartbreaking.
Alison Oliver plays Felix’s sister Venetia, a young woman who is contemptuous of the new interloper, but is intoxicated by his surprising come-ons. The moment where Oliver seduces her outside in the cold night achieves a comically vicious and playful eroticism. The director is having fun with her audience, but doesn’t play nice as she crafts the scene with a puckish (and devious) sense of humor.
Archie Madekwe is catty perfection as the American cousin who resents Oliver being allowed into the makeshift family, as this is formerly his role and he refuses to give way to Felix’s new “pet project” while Carey Mulligan has a delightfully funny cameo as a damaged family friend who has long overstayed her welcome.
“Saltburn” exists in the world of Claude Chabrol, whose mystery thrillers were rich in deep psychological drama. Like that masterful filmmaker, Fennel is fascinated by the motivations of her characters and has nasty fun with their creation. Once on the grounds of Felix’s family home, Fennel’s script heightens its probing of fluid sexuality and class structure, intensifying the drama with each reveal. As the shine of Oliver begins to wear off for the Catton family, the film’s observations become ruthless and the playfulness gives way to a dangerous edge.
Jacob Elordi finally makes good on his method-infused performance from HBO’s “Euphoria”. With his striking physical presence and classically handsome face, Elodi embodies the character (and everything he represents) with a natural talent and effortlessness. Felix is the upper class that allows someone of lesser stature to infiltrate his home. Perhaps he genuinely likes Oliver or maybe he is just another charity case that makes Felix and his family feel better. To have Oliver around gives them some sort of meaning, as they are helping another poor soul. The family feels better about themselves, as deep down they know their wealth and privilege has brought them nothing but isolation.
Fennel and her cinematographer Linus Sandgren create a mosaic of the mundane. Every frame is composed with precision, as these layabouts do just that; lounging by the pool, skulking around the house, each one comfortable yet bored with their wealth. The somber darkness of the Saltburn mansion increasingly becomes all the more suffocating while Anthony Willis’ eerily mischievous score is a willingly complicit rogue in creating the film’s hypnotic suspense.
In what is perhaps his best work to date, Barry Keoghan leads the picture with a devious innocence. By opening the film with the proclamation “I was not in love with Felix.”, Oliver Quick immediately becomes the unreliable narrator. The way Keoghan embodies his character’s strange demeanor (simultaneously intriguing and repelling all who make his acquaintance) is quite deft. An actor who knows how to balance virtue and danger, Keoghan is riveting, fully inhabiting Oliver’s sexual and emotional dangers. The masks of innocence cannot not hide immorality forever; a vicious reality Felix and his privileged family will learn at the hands of this inherently impious young man.
Armed with her own unique style and supreme filmmaking skill, Emerald Fennell has crafted a masterful film of wicked facades. “Saltburn” is a mesmerizing piece that does not set out to eat the rich. In this twisted world, the rich devour themselves.
Written & Directed by Emerald Fennell
Starring Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Archie Madekwe, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant
R, 127 Minutes, MGM/LuckyChap Entertainment