“Mom, wake up. A new Oscar contender just dropped.”
2023 has been the year of movies, which seems ironic to say considering the 2023 Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes that paralyzed Hollywood. But this year still gave us some truly great films: Barbie, Oppenheimer, Past Lives, The Holdovers, The Killer, Bottoms and so many more. And, just on the cusp of the next year, we are gifted with one of the anticipated movies of the year, Saltburn.
Saltburn, the sophomore film of writer and director Emerald Fennell, is a thrilling, campy dark comedy set in the early 2000s English backcountry, taking place in a house by the name of Saltburn. The movie follows Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), a lower-middle-class awkward college kid who has made it to Oxford University on a scholarship. Oliver’s story truly develops when he meets Felix Catton, played by Jacob Elordi, who invites Oliver to stay with him and his family at Saltburn during the summer holidays.
The film is sparingly narrated by an older Oliver who seems to reflect on the events through a wiser perspective, criticizing himself and having epiphanies about his emotions as he tells the story. The film is ultimately a study of the lavish lifestyle and mentality of the wealthy British upper class of the early 2000s.
Keoghan stuns the screen with his first performance as a lead actor. Compared to the other characters, who we learn a lot about as they bluntly vomit their life stories to us, Oliver is one of the characters we know the least about. But, because of Keoghan’s performance and manner, it is not hard to relate to Oliver and be interested in him despite the lack of information. Oliver regularly toes the line between innocent and mischievous but in a way that retains the viewer’s belief that there is a structure of reason behind his actions.
Elordi plays Felix, a laid-back British university student who is oblivious to his inherent wealth, but allows every part of his life to be dictated by it. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Fennell called Elordi’s portrayal “genius,” and I agree. Instead of playing a characteristically pretentious rich character, Elordi emulates a fun, free and fresh performance of a careless kid who, while molded by how he was raised, was still able to formulate his own interesting and captivating personality.
Another key performance is that of Rosamund Pike, who plays the role of Felix’s mother, Elsbeth Catton. Pike makes Elsbeth the personification of the British upper class with her posh composure and out-of-the-blue one-liners. Her ability to carry a passive-aggressive tone through some key phrases and back-handed compliments allows for a unique portrayal of a matriarchal figure that is key to the story’s unfolding and to the study of the British class system.
Saltburn is a funky and quirky house, full of luxurious art and statues that have hats on them, including a maze on the grounds, which no one seems to be able to figure out but the Catton family. The layout of the house, shown to us by Felix, is very open and is used to indicate how every guest is carefully watched and judged throughout their stay at the estate.
The clothing, from casual to costumes to formal, is carefully picked out to show the characteristics and lifestyles of each of the characters. For example, Felix’s looser, lighter clothing symbolizes his freedom in the house and is juxtaposed with the house’s dark undertones.
Fennell turns her ingenuity to the max with Saltburn, closely following her achievement with her Oscar-winning work Promising Young Woman. Fennell makes moves that teeter the line of making the viewer uncomfortable but intrigued. Her work is psychological. It makes the viewer spend hours and days afterward thinking about what happened, why it happened and why it had to happen the way it did.
There are criticisms, of course. People claim that as a thriller, it misses the mark, and I agree. This is especially seen in the “twist” ending of the movie. It was largely predictable and didn’t leave much space for wonder or for the shock that we expect from a regular thriller.
It’s not the best thriller, but it is a fantastic dark comedy. Unfortunately, one genre had to win out over the other, and I’m glad dark comedy took the cake. When it comes to this movie and its messaging, the comedic aspect was necessary to show and exaggerate its ideas about the uber wealthy. As a thriller, it would have left us with a different type of emotion, one that wouldn’t have properly reflected the point of the film.
For those who say the movie was not risky enough, I think they might have gone to a different theater because Fennell takes plenty of unconventional risks. Sure, those comments may come from a comparison to Fennell’s other film, but looking at Saltburn alone, it is a great example of how risking discomfort can create unique scenes and reactions from the audience. Trust me, it’s rated R for a reason.
Saltburn gave what it needed to give — a memorable experience for the viewers — and it went above and beyond in doing so.