How do you follow up a feature debut like Promising Young Woman? In the case of the wickedly talented Emerald Fennell, the answer is to offer something dripping with excess that contains some of the same subversive themes about people coveting the lives of others and doing dastardly things to achieve their aims. Just as her first feature rubbed some people the wrong way with its incisive critique of toxic masculinity, so too will Saltburn, an intoxicating look at luxury and lavishness from a quietly observant outside perspective.
The obsession begins when Oliver (Barry Keoghan) first sees Felix (Jacob Elordi) at Oxford. A flat tire on Felix’s bike gives the entranced Oliver the perfect opportunity to step in and loan him a convenient way to get to class on time. The typically sheepish loner soon finds himself warmly embraced by the endlessly charming Felix, who then invites Oliver to spend the summer at his family’s extravagant estate. As Oliver is introduced to the members of Felix’s family, he yearns for nothing more than to be accepted into this life of responsibility-free excess.
For her sophomore feature, Fennell once again chooses as a protagonist someone who doesn’t fit in with the mold and has, to some degree, chosen to isolate themselves from a world that doesn’t fit them. Oliver is picked on for the way he dresses and how he talks, and he occasionally hears Felix’s friends declaring their desire not to be around him. Yet he knows what he wants, which is to be close to Felix, and when the unexpected invitation behind the curtain of everything Felix is comes, he’s all too eager to jump at it.
Saltburn is a visual feast, and Fennell is working mostly with new collaborators aside from composer Anthony Willis. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren shows the grandeur of Saltburn, the name of the family estate, from Oliver’s perspective, inviting audiences in the same way as the film’s main character to experience it. Editor Victoria Boydell weaves together a hypnotic and almost terrifying immersion into Oliver’s obsessive personality and the various individuals who note his peculiarities with far less suspicion that they should.
While a key hook of her first film was casting actors associated with endearing roles as men unwilling to do the right thing in a given situation, Fennell, in collaboration with Casting Director Kharmel Cochrane, casts a different kind of net to build her latest ensemble. Keoghan is fresh off his first Oscar nomination, for The Banshees of Inisherin, and he’s able to combine the endearing sadness of that role with a toned-down version of the shudder-inducing creepiness of his part from The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Elordi, known for playing the utterly horrible Nate on Euphoria, is the opposite, completely charming and alluring, capable of making anyone feel seen with his effortless charisma. Scenes featuring the two of them are particularly electric and mesmerizing.
Building Felix’s family is just as important an endeavor, and this film hits it out of the park. As Felix’s American cousin, Archie Madekwe is full of ferocity and attitude, the only one to truly see Oliver for what he is from the start. Alison Oliver, an extraordinary find from Hulu’s limited series Conversations with Friends, exceeds the demands of her first film role with a haunting portrait of Felix’s sister Venetia, who parades around naked at night beneath Oliver’s window yet doesn’t seem ready for any true level of intimacy. As Felix’s parents, Richard E. Grant and particularly Rosamund Pike excel at demonstrating an unbelievable disconnect with the reality of the world around them that’s somehow made believable by their skill. Fennell also employs her Promising Young Woman lead Carey Mulligan and the versatile Lolly Adefope to great effect in limited roles.
Where Saltburn begins to falter is in its desire to provide a neat and definitive ending that makes sense of everything that’s come before it. Its ambiguity is its strongest asset, keeping audiences guessing about Oliver’s true motives, Felix’s goodness, and whether Felix’s family can really be as out of touch as they seem. Fennell is an exceptional screenwriter and has a fascinating story to tell, but this is one case where leaving more to the imagination could have left a more lingering effect. Despite the choice not to do so, there’s much to like – and enjoy hating – about Saltburn that it’s sure to leave a lingering impression on any audience member thanks to its top-notch cast and masterful ability to spin its dark, bizarre tale.
Awards Potential: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress (Pike), Best Original Screenplay, technical categories
Box Office Potential: $10 million
Renewability: None. This is a singular story with a definitive end.
Overall Score: B+
Saltburn will be released in theaters by MGM on November 17.
Studio: MGM & Amazon Studios
Cast: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, Archie Madekwe, Carey Mulligan
Director: Emerald Fennell
Screenwriter: Emerald Fennell
Producers: Emerald Fennell, Margot Robbie, Josey McNamara
DP: Linus Sandgren
Production Design: Suzie Davies
Costume Design: Sophie Canale
Editor: Victoria Boydell
Score by: Anthony Willis