SALTBURN Review: Titillation of Flesh, Nothing More
Oliver (Barry Keoghan) is a nebbish freshman at Oxford; the year is 2007. The soundtrack is all MGMT and Bloc Party, The Killers, etc. All around him are wealth and privilege. Only friend he can find is a weird math nerd with no social skills. Then there is Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), a very tall, handsome kid from an aristocratic family, whom everyone is swooning over. Felix's life is a never-ending party and drinking and girls. "Did I love him," Oliver asks over the series of close-up shots of present and near future Felix engaging in sexy activities. Oliver's lustful stares from a distance betrays his emotionless narration, or does it? "No I wasn't in love with him," he declares. But his luck would have it, Felix takes a liking to Oliver's poor scholarship kid with an addict/alcoholic parents sob story and off they go on the summer break to a sprawling Catton mansion, Saltburn.
The Cattons, unimaginably wealthy family of Felix, consists of frazzled dad- Sir James (Richard E. Grant), ice queen mom- Elsbeth (Rosamund Pike), nympho sister- Venetia (Alison Oliver) and snooty, gossipy cousin and fellow Oxford mate, Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), leading gilded life pampered by a group of servants. Golf, swimming, tanning, champaigns, lounging around naked in the garden, the works. The Saltburn manor is even equipped with The Overlook Hotel-style hedge maze. The film rapidly develops into a cross between Teorema and Talented Mr. Ripley, where everyone's giving Oliver sultry looks and he in turn, taking advantage of their curiosities, one by one.
Saltburn is unapologetically horny film. It's all about sweat, saliva and other bodily fluids. There are copious amounts of flesh shots of shirtless Felix as he is Oliver's de facto object of desire. Elordi as spoiled rich brat with a heart of gold (as his Elvis in Sofia Coppola's Priscilla) is perfect for the role. So is Keoghan, doing his creepy turn again (Killing of a Sacred Deer, Banshees of Inisherin), as an obsessive kid with dark desires. Fennell's script, bristling with sardonic wit and irony tickles your funnybones and gnarly, yet beautifully photographed transgressions (captured by Linus Sandgren, La La Land, Babylon) tickles your senses. But what does all of this amount to? Where do all these plot twists and turns and revelations ultimately lead us to?
Oliver's methodical plan to get closer to Felix come crashing down when the trip to his home reveals that he's not whom he pretends to be. With Oliver's planned birthday celebrations that would mark an end to their friendship, things take a dark turn. And this is where Fennell's steam runs out. Saltburn loses its rudder and ends with a massive hangover and disappointment.
There's no subtext to its period setting, there's no lessons to be learned about class disparities, not that there has to be. But with her last film Promising Young Woman, Fennell seems to be an ambulance chaser when it comes to topical issues of the day, but only on the surface level. Oliver, with his fuzzy motivations, is not consistent enough to make the film a character study even. Grant, Pike and Mulligan and others become toys to be played around and tossed (off screen even). Why do they deserve such cruel fate? Fennell never addresses. All we are left with is images of Keoghan slurping bath water, humping a fresh grave naked, and dance around full frontal in the empty manor. Keoghan is a major talent and a risk-taker obviously. I understand the film's concentrating on very narrow Gen Z and young LGBTQA+ audience. The promotion for the press screening made it very clear. But Saltburn ends up a titillation of flesh and nothing more.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com
- Emerald Fennell
- Emerald Fennell
- Barry Keoghan
- Jacob Elordi
- Archie Madekwe