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  • Writer's pictureBen Pivoz

Saltburn


The impressive title location in Saltburn (Distributed by MGM)

There is something strangely unknowable about Barry Keoghan. In the majority of his roles, there is a strong sense that nobody knows what he really wants. That’s certainly true of his creepy turn in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but it even comes through in his much more likable role in The Banshees of Inisherin. Writer/director Emerald Fennell takes total advantage of that quality in Saltburn (124 minutes, without the end credits).


It is a satirical drama (with some very dark humor) following Oliver, a lonely young man who gains the friendship of Felix, a popular, wealthy, fellow student at Oxford. Coming from a troubled upbringing, Oliver doesn’t know anybody at Oxford. When Felix generously invites him to spend the summer with Felix’s family at their massive estate, the surface-level friendliness and opulence of this new world is like a fantasy to Oliver. But the question of what he wants hangs over the entire movie. Is it just friendship? Is he in love with Felix? Is it infatuation? Or is something even deeper than that going on? For that matter, the only person who doesn’t seem to wonder about Oliver’s purpose is Felix. Is Felix actually that trusting? Or does he have his own reasons for keeping Oliver around?


Saltburn is not a mystery (despite feeling a lot like a psychological thriller), yet character motivation is kept close to the vest throughout. Fennell (who was nominated for Best Director and won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 2021 for Promising Young Woman) has created a drama centered on the relationship between these two men that contains a pretty mean dark comedy satire inside of it. That material comes organically from the spoiled, oblivious, self-absorbed people in Felix’s circle.

Oliver (Barry Keoghan) tries to fit in

Fennell doesn’t go out of her way to savage these people; she merely allows them to be themselves. The casting of Felix’s parents is picture perfect. Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant are excellent as a couple who are far more concerned with showing their culture and their wealth than they are in their children. They don’t want friends; they want hangers-on they can dismiss without a thought when they grow bored.


Interestingly, though Fennell has a large space at her disposal, there is no real sense of Saltburn as a location. I think this was done intentionally. Oliver is completely out of his element there. Wherever he goes in or around the house is special to him. Making the audience familiar with the place could easily have given us the feeling that Oliver is at home there. It is more important that we see him always as an outsider, in awe of everything about this property. She still gives us incredible shots of fancy dining rooms, a lawn maze and Oliver alone in his room. Every frame has meaning for his story.


Fennell has a clear eye for this world and is aided immeasurably by an impressively fearless performance from Barry Keoghan. Oliver is awkward, loyal, smart and kind of needy. Keoghan makes us believe we’re figuring Oliver out, while constantly throwing out looks and gestures that suggest otherwise. He is asked to do more than it seems, which is a tough task. This is one of the best performances of 2023.


Pike, Grant, Jacob Elordi as Felix and Archie Madekwe as Felix’s troublemaking cousin, Farleigh, are all very good. Still, Emerald Fennell’s control of tone and ability to mix Oliver’s drama with the absurdity of the filthy rich is what makes Saltburn so effective. In only two movies, she has proven to be gifted at mixing humor, social commentary and darkness. Here her production is less colorful and more coldly stylized in the manner of those worried about appearing proper.


She shows her audience things that will make us uncomfortable, featuring unlikable characters behaving however they want. Saltburn is not an easy watch. Yet, for a certain type of viewer, it is exactly the kind of challenging, entertaining, fairly disturbing movie multiplexes don’t get nearly enough of. I am that type of viewer.

 

4¼ out of 5

 

Cast:

Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick

Jacob Elordi as Felix Catton

Archie Madekwe as Farleigh Start

Alison Oliver as Venetia Catton

Rosamund Pike as Elspeth Catton

Richard E. Grant as Sir James Catton

 

Directed and Written by Emerald Fennell

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