Is Saltburn a film about love, greed, gluttony, or lust? That very question is posed by Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) at the beginning of the film in a narration that is unnervingly fixated on Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). However, the film’s genre of offering is that of a psychological thriller, and that promise takes the front seat when one least expects it. Therefore, boiling writer, director, and co-producer Emerald Fennell’s craft down to any one definitive thing would be quite reductive.
Unfolding against the backdrop of Oxford and Northamptonshire, the film is a surreal mix of undertones that dance enticingly before the viewer’s eyes. Oliver, assumed to be a geeky loser, becomes obsessed with Felix in a way that doesn’t fully border on love. Whether Felix pities Oliver or loves him like a friend is open to interpretation.
The discomfort between the duo arises due to various complications. Oliver claims to come from a broken family, with a dead father and a mother who has written off her life to substance abuse. Furthermore, whereas Felix is immensely well off, Oliver narrates a tale that paints him as being financially crippled. Felix takes him under his wing and inculcates him into his life, inviting him to Saltburn, his family’s country house, albeit to the dismay of his cousin Farleigh Start (Archie Madekwe).
In an absurd unfolding of events, the filmmaker takes the audience through an intricate exploration of the vitality of power in any equation. Oliver is seen as lesser than by Felix’s family, though they try to euphemise their blows through extravagant displays of shallow affection. Felix, too, becomes a victim of this behaviour at times, putting Oliver in inane situations through ludicrous asks. One almost starts believing that the film is an exploration of the inherent classism that comes with privilege. However, just as the audience eases into that belief, a spanner is thrown into the works.
Saltburn houses many secrets. Be it the family’s many ridiculous quirks that they flimsily try to mask, or Oliver’s intention behind tagging along, no one is truly who they say they are. This keeps the audience at the edges of their seats at all times, waiting for the ball to drop. And drop it does.
It certainly feels strange to say this, but the film shines at its most grotesque moments. While the overall plot needs a much tighter edit to get to the crux of the offering, Saltburn compensates for these moments of drudgery by engaging viewers with glimpses of the human mind at its most repulsive, deprived, and deranged.
Emerald’s narrative leans into the shock value with equal parts glee and modesty. This is not to say that the repulsiveness of Saltburn is modest. That would be the furthest thing from the truth. It is, in fact, the restrained manner in which these elements are peppered throughout the film that keeps one waiting with bated breath, wondering what act of depravity will transpire next. When it’s time for the team to evoke a ferocious response from the audience, it goes all out.
However, as laughable as it may sound, one hopes that the film was a tad bit more generous with its monstrous liberties. Again, this is not to say that the existing ones are tame. However, it is due to the immense spacing between these instances, populated with welcome, albeit slightly boring dialogue, that makes one wish that Saltburn had fully thrown itself in the throes of its outrageous embrace.
One cannot compliment the highly divisive offering without commending the cast. Barry is an unforgettable Oliver, swiftly and rightfully becoming a popular culture icon through his skilled portrayal. Jacob is the eye candy of the plot, and he grabs the opportunity with a ferocity for which many of his fans might be grateful. However, his conflict and suspension between two worlds are also artfully depicted, for which Jacob must be applauded.
Rosamund Pike as Lady Elspeth Catton, Felix’s mother, plays the role to perfection. Haughty, rude, self-absorbed, and deliciously marked with shades of grey, the acclaimed actor does not disappoint and delivers yet another masterclass in acting. Richard E. Grant, who essays Sir James Catton, Felix’s father, is menacing and frightful in his limited screen-time, and complements Rosamund’s Elspeth perfectly.
Alison Oliver as Venetia Catton, Felix’s sister remarkably makes the audience harbour disgust and sympathy for her character. Archie as Farleigh is a pestilent thorn in Oliver’s side, and their tense relationship is also an intriguing back and forth.
To sum up, Saltburn is an acquired taste. It is alienating to many for good reason, and deeply engrossing to some for the very same. Inundated with moral complexities, and the absolute shattering of civilised behaviour, this is a film for all those who enjoy the occasional unhinged watch.