Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut, Promising Young Woman, is a scorched-earth cinematic lambasting of rape culture. Her sophomore effort, Saltburn, is considerably less furious, a little less focused, and a lot more perverted. Barry Keoghan stars as Oliver Quick, a “scholarship case” at Oxford who doesn’t fit in with the upper crusty students who come with their social groups predetermined by Eton and aristocracy, yet he longs to belong. With a tragic backstory to match his Dickensian name, Oliver eventually befriends Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), scion of one of those aristocratic families. From some point in the future, Oliver recalls his relationship with Felix, so we know something has happened to Felix, it’s just a question of what.
With nowhere to go during summer break, Felix invites Oliver to his ancestral pile, Saltburn. Fennell hails from an upper crusty background and is an alumna of Oxford, and Saltburn is peppered with texture only someone from that background can provide, such as hats piled on a marble bust in an entry hall, or the casual, gossipy cruelty of people who do and contribute nothing but claim to know everything. Rosamund Pike is outstanding as Elspeth, Felix’s horrible mother who gossips about everyone and bitchily declares, “She’d do anything for attention,” when one of her friends dies. Pike excels at playing loathsome characters and she has never been better than she is here; Elspeth is so casually cruel it’s breathtaking, she’s at once totally oblivious yet capable of delivering acute set downs tailored to her prey of the moment.
At Oxford, Oliver is awkward and a misfit, but at Saltburn, he begins to shapeshift. Exposed to the Cattons and their “f-ck off castle”, his social climbing changes from something understandable as a young person struggling to fit in and find himself, to something much more sinister. He begins tailoring his persona to suit whoever makes up his audience, reading the Saltburn catalog and regurgitating facts about the house’s collection to the spacey Sir James (Richard E. Grant), gossiping with Elspeth, having midnight period-blood sex with Felix’s sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver).
Did I mention that Saltburn is horny? It is SUPER horny, but in a maximally perverted, tongue-in-cheek way. Oliver claims he isn’t in love with Felix, but at the very least, he’s obsessed enough to drink the guy’s come water out of the bath drain (Oliver’s sexuality is best defined as “what’s in it for me”). There are shades of The Talented Mr. Ripley for sure, but there’s also a dash of Bret Easton Ellis’s deliberately grotesque provocations and Donna Tartt’s sharp observations about the nature of people bound together by nothing more than admission to the same institution. Felix and Oliver have no common ground except being in the same college at Oxford, but Oliver finds every exploitable crevice in Felix to cement himself as Felix’s friend.
Felix is described as the sort of person around whom the whole social universe revolves, yet the only thing he seems to have going for him is generational wealth and looking like Jacob Elordi, who gives a deliciously louche performance as Felix. He’s something of a nice guy in his social set, though he gossips about Oliver to his family just as his mother does, but he’s also sort of…dumb. With his floppy hair and Elordi’s sweet intonation, he’s like a golden retriever only occasionally inclined to bite. But he does bite, eventually souring on Oliver which is when Saltburn takes a hard left into farcical territory that is, nonetheless, as spiky and fraught as everything that has come before.
Another cast standout is Archie Madekwe as Farleigh, Felix’s American cousin. As much as Felix is held up as the most desirable, most interesting boy in the world, Farleigh actually is interesting, both a Catton Of Saltburn and an outsider twice over, as an American and a person of color. His position in the family is less assured. His uncle, Sir James, pays for his education but forces Farleigh to beg for anything more, and Oliver takes his chance to exploit that vulnerability to remove Farleigh, the person who most correctly sees Oliver.
But though Felix is not all that interesting beyond his wealth and title, that’s the whole point of Saltburn. The Cattons are venal, abusive people yet because their house has a name, they are granted social standing and importance they have not earned, and they have an entire social order bent to upholding said standing. Their creepy butler, Duncan (Paul Rhys), is protective of this family that treats him like furniture, at best. Like Farleigh, Duncan sees something in Oliver that displeases him, but also like Farleigh, he is not capable of besting Oliver and prying him out of Saltburn.
Everyone is terrible and yet, somehow, Oliver is a protagonist worth rooting for. Perhaps it’s because the Cattons are so awful that watching Oliver dismantle them is pleasurable, or maybe it’s because Fennell is so good at appealing to the freak inside all of us, and Saltburn has a flag for every type of freak. Or maybe it’s just Barry Keoghan’s performance as Oliver, which walks a line somewhere between fearless, hilarious, incisive, and creepy. Keoghan has a unique knack to both unsettle and illicit sympathy at the same time, but while Oliver isn’t sympathetic, Keoghan still manages to make him strangely appealing, if for no other reason than to see what move he’ll make next.
Saltburn doesn’t have the fiery rage of Promising Young Woman, but it does have the specificity of experience, and while the film doesn’t really say anything new about the rich, or the social climbers who imitate them, it’s plenty entertaining even as it veers into borderline camp territory in the final twenty minutes. The finale could only happen if Fennell, Pike, and Keoghan are totally in synch, particularly Fennell and Keoghan. There’s probably a slightly shorter version of this film that is sharper, even meaner, and has greater narrative clarity, at the same time, those bonkers final minutes take Saltburn into such weird territory it feels like an accomplishment in and of itself, imperfect as it is. It’s excessive but unforgettable, a perverse, madcap ending to a perverse, madcap film.
Saltburn is now playing exclusively in theaters.