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Like that 2020 film, which earned Fennell an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay among its five nominations, “Saltburn” succeeds in slashing our expectations about how people are supposed to behave in polite society. This is her particular spin on an oft-told tale. She holds up a magnifying glass to a rarefied world and exposes the truth of human nature: its transactional tendencies, its queasy mix of desire and disposability.
An update of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” set in the mid-aughts, “Saltburn” is deliciously, wickedly mean—seductive and often surreal—with lush production values and lacerating performances. As writer and director, Fennell clearly intends to amuse and provoke, and she achieves both of those goals for a long time. But even more so than in “Promising Young Woman,” she frustratingly wobbles the landing. “Saltburn” hangs around for about ten minutes longer than it should, holding our hands and walking us through the lead character’s schemes when a tantalizing sense of ambiguity would have been much more powerful.
Barry Keoghan gives a deeply unsettling performance as Oliver Quick, a scholarship student at Oxford University who arrives as a freshman and, in time, ingratiates himself with the popular clique. Possibly dangerous weirdos are Keoghan’s bread and butter, as seen in films like “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”; here, he shifts subtly and seamlessly to be whoever he must from moment to moment. Specifically, he sets his sights on Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), a gorgeous and godlike aristocrat who moves through the world with cool ease and an almost naïve sense of noblesse oblige. Needy and creepy, Oliver wants to be with him but also wants to be him, and the patience of his sociopathic long game is impressive.
Elordi is even more alluring here than he was as Elvis Presley in “Priscilla,” and it’s easy to see why men and women alike fall all over themselves for him. Among them is “Gran Turismo” star Archie Madekwe as Felix’s queer cousin, Farleigh; a bit of an outsider himself, he’s naturally suspicious of Oliver’s intentions as he fiercely protects his spot among the cool kids. Madekwe has a way with a bitchy, blasé aside, his delivery a perfect fit for Fennell’s material.
All these tensions and manipulations come to a slow boil over the summer at Saltburn, Felix’s sprawling family estate. The tour he gives the awkward Oliver upon his arrival is particularly well-paced, and the droll way Fennell introduces the rest of Felix’s privileged family prompts wave after wave of laughter. Rosamund Pike is an absolute scream as Felix’s glamorous mother, Elspeth, a former model with a flair for melodrama and casual cruelty. Richard E. Grant is sweetly shallow in an almost childlike way as Felix’s father, Sir James. Alison Oliver is Felix’s chicly tragic sister, Venetia; her incisive, third-act bathtub monologue is a killer and among the film’s highlights. And “Promising Young Woman” star Carey Mulligan returns in a quietly hilarious supporting role as the family’s houseguest, Pamela (or as she’s credited, “Poor Dear Pamela”), who’s such a narcissistic drip, she has no clue she’s long overstayed her welcome. And, of course, there’s Farleigh, who sees through everyone and everything but would never dare jeopardize his position.
The dreamy visuals from Oscar-winning “La La Land” cinematographer Linus Sandgren invite us to luxuriate in all this old-world opulence until it steadily devolves into a garish nightmare. Long, warm days of staying just a little bit tipsy by the pool morph into long nights of dressy, drunken dinners. Oliver stalks his prey one by one, resulting in some moments involving bodily fluids that will shock some viewers and cause others to giggle. The primal depravity on display vividly illuminates who this vampiric central figure truly is.
Between languid afternoon viewings of “Superbad” and sunny road trips with The Killers blasting on the car stereo, the tension builds as Oliver insinuates himself further. The mere possibility of how badly this summer reverie will turn out is suspenseful enough; Fennell takes the narrative to a darker place than you ever could have imagined, and then she explains what she did as soon as you’ve finished watching it. This is unnecessary. Keoghan is disturbing enough in how he indicates his character’s lingering and longing, the way he desperately seeks comfort within this careless world.
Fennell isn't saying anything new about the fact that the rich are different, but she’s saying it with biting wit and irresistible style. For a brief escape, that might be enough.
In limited release today, November 17th. Wider next week, November 22nd.
Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick
Jacob Elordi as Felix Catton
Rosamund Pike as Elspeth Catton
Richard E. Grant as Sir James Catton
Alison Oliver as Venetia Catton
Archie Madekwe as Farleigh Start
Carey Mulligan as Poor Dear Pamela
Paul Rhys as Duncan