In the recent slew of satires about the 1% — notable examples being “Parasite”, the “Knives Out” series, “Triangle of Sadness” and “The Menu” — writer-director Emerald Fennell throws her hat in the ring with her black comedy-thriller about eating the rich, “Saltburn.”
The thing is, she is a perfect fit for exploring wealth. Fennell’s Oscar-winning “Promising Young Woman,” while getting a polarized reception, did provide a thought-provoking commentary on rape culture in America. The premise for her new film alone invites intrigue. Taking place in 2007, lower-class Oxford student Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) gets to spend the summer at his rich friend Felix Catton’s (Jacob Elordi) estate, Saltburn. Along the way he has to deal with Felix’s vapid family while doing whatever he can to make sure he can stay.
The premise makes it sound like “Saltburn” could be another provocative film from Fennell, but in the film’s biggest twist, it turns out it doesn’t know what it’s doing.
The only thing done well in this movie was the cinematography by Linus Sandgren. All the shots are picturesque, atmospheric and even trippy at times.
The 4×3 aspect ratio, which at first seemed unnecessary, actually works well with the tone, giving appropriate intimacy whenever characters have personal conversations. It also creates a clever contrast to the idyllic Saltburn estate, making it feel small and claustrophobic no matter how grandiose and open-spaced the shots of the mansion are.
Despite how well-made it is, “Saltburn” still cannot escape from its biggest flaw: the story.
One of the biggest issues the film has with itself is with its protagonist. Oliver, shown as someone desperate for connection while in Oxford, becomes inconsistent as the film goes on. It implies his feelings for Felix are romantic, making sense for why he would want to stay close to him, and yet he spends more time flirting and having sex with Felix’s family.
This would reveal him to be a leech, which could work with where the film goes in the second half, but it keeps going back and forth between Oliver being a manipulative person clinging onto this family and him wanting to be closer to his crush. It makes Oliver a harder character to understand, his primary goal remaining way too unclear.
The actors all try to give their characters life. Keoghan manages to humanize Oliver as much as he can, despite how erratic the script is.
As for the rest of the cast, they are more consistent, but not anything new. Elordi works in playing yet another tall person that people fall madly in love over, this time giving Felix a Golden Retriever-like personality that makes him more likable than Elvis.
Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant as Felix’s parents have moments where they shine. Pike is incredibly funny and Grant gets to be unsettling during a turn in the story, but they’re still the usual self-absorbed, bored rich people who have too much money than they know what to do with.
Felix’s sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) is stuck being a temptress and not given much to do, but Oliver does her best to make her feel developed. And Archie Madekwe as the sassy cousin Farleigh has fun with the role, getting to be a foil for Oliver as they rival over the family’s attention.
The actors all give good performances for what they have, but the characters are so underwritten that they become forgettable.
No matter how promising a twisty thriller about a lower-class student enduring a messed up rich family for summer vacation is, the script doesn’t do anything with it. It never brings a new perspective on the 1% and lacks the thrills needed to make this movie stand out.
The closest the film has to something thrilling are scenes where something gross or messed up happens, but they never shock and are pointless. Instead, they are unintentionally hilarious and sadly the most interesting part of the film.
Though not as tonally messy as “Promising Young Woman,” Fennell still has a hard time combining genres and making them work. “Saltburn” is clearly trying to be a mix of a dark comedy satire, a gothic thriller, an erotic thriller and a romance, but it never comes together. It’s all over the place and has none of the bite that made her last film as big as it was.
Because of that imbalance, the point of the film becomes harder to figure out. Are we supposed to side with Oliver or feel sorry for the family being taken advantage of? Is it a commentary about obsession or is it about how empty the rich life is? Is the ending supposed to be happy or tragic? It’s never made clear, and not in a way where that’s supposed to be the point. It’s acting like it has a point, but it doesn’t make one.
“Saltburn” ends up becoming what it was making fun of—a pretty, vapid, empty gothic-romantic-black-comedy-satire-thriller that is a forgettable entry in the recent number of movies that do a better job at exploring the absurdity and logic of the wealthy. It’s a giant misstep for Emerald Fennell, a waste of a great cast, a great cinematographer and of an interesting premise.
It stings, not in story, but in disappointment.