Academy Award-winning writer-director Emerald Fennell follows up her provocative breakout Promising Young Woman with another button-pusher in the new stately and seductive psychological dramedy Saltburn. Where Fennell’s previous effort targeted rape culture and male entitlement in the States, her latest takes place across the pond and focuses on class disparities and resentments in England. It’s an ever-shifting mirrorball of a movie, resembling a ritzier redo of The Talented Mr. Ripley one moment and then an especially twisted version of a Jane Austen tale the next. Though it can undoubtedly spin out of control at times, the performances and mise-en-scène ultimately sell its brash vision of sociopathic caste warfare.
Miles from his sweet and sensitive turn in The Banshees Of Inisherin last year, Barry Keoghan stars as Oliver Quick, a prickly undergrad struggling to make friends during his first year at Oxford University. After a serendipitous favor, he’s taken under the wing of the fantastically well-off Felix (Jacob Elordi) and invited to Saltburn, his family’s opulent estate, for school break. Braving the sweltering summer sun with them are Felix’s posh parents Lady Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) and Sir James (Richard E. Grant), along with his licentious sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) and his contumelious cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe). They spend the days donning tuxedos for pick-up tennis and the nights singing Pet Shop Boys karaoke, all with a full martini glass in hand for every moment. But underneath the hazy-minded fun, a more deviant game is afoot.
Holding over from Promising Young Woman, Carey Mulligan pops up in a brief role as an oblivious hanger-on of Elspeth’s who portends Oliver’s fate should he remain at Saltburn past his welcome. The stoic Paul Rhys rounds out the exceptional ensemble as the head butler, who seems to be holding back so much that he wishes he could say at every moment. But it’s ultimately Keoghan’s show and, indeed, he puts on quite the perverse spectacle; he’s played creepy before in The Green Knight and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer but this is his most unnerving performance to date. Though his frame is noticeably more diminutive than 6′ 5″ co-stars Elordi and Madekwe, Keoghan gives Oliver an imposing disposition that implies his threat is more psychological than physical.
Shooting with lurid colors in a more constrained aspect ratio, cinematographer Linus Sandgren contributes to the lecherous and voyeuristic vibe that Fennell aims to impart with Saltburn. Oliver is frequently framed as an outsider, peering through doorways and windows into a privileged life that he desperately desires for himself. The question is who will he become once he’s granted access inside such a life and the answer may turn off those who most enjoy movies where you can guiltlessly root for the protagonist. At the very least, Keoghan does everything to sell his character’s trajectory as the summer trudges on.
But like in Promising Young Woman, Fennell can’t help but hit us over the head with the messaging and plotting in the final act. In a way, it’s more disappointing in Saltburn, since there’s so much subtlety in the performances — by Keoghan and Elordi, in particular — that gets wiped out by Fennell’s garish storytelling instincts. I was gobstruck when she opted for a “what you didn’t see” montage in the final stretch; my hope is that Fennell starts to trust her audience a bit more her next time out. She does, at least, score a barnburner of a closing scene that doesn’t necessarily add much to the narrative but is irresistibly conceived and choreographed. Those who are in a naughty mood this holiday season may feel right at home within the confines of Saltburn.
Score – 3/5
New movies coming this week:
Playing only in theaters is Silent Night, an action thriller starring Joel Kinnaman and Scott Mescudi following a grieving father as he wordlessly enacts his long-awaited revenge against a ruthless gang on Christmas Eve.
Streaming on Netflix is May December, a drama starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore about a married couple with a large age gap who buckles under the pressure when an actress arrives to do research for a film about their past.
Premiering on Amazon Prime is Candy Cane Lane, a Christmas comedy starring Eddie Murphy and Tracee Ellis Ross about a man who makes a pact with an elf to help him win the neighborhood’s annual Christmas decorating contest.