There’s a point in Saltburn where a character says that they “loved” and “hated” somebody else, going back and forth. This reflects the experience of watching the film. Some will adore Emerald Fennell’s sophomore feature, others will walk out, and most will be on the fence. That’s apparently by design. Discussing the picture with Clayton Davis of Variety, Fennell stated that she wanted people to “hate it” and “love it.” Above all else, she wanted “people to feel something.” Conflicted is how general audiences will likely feel throughout Saltburn. Just when you might be ready to ask for a refund, Fennell pulls you back in.
Barry Keoghan outdoes his Oscar-nominated turn in The Banshees of Inisherin as Oliver Quick, an awkward Oxford student who doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. He nonetheless manages to infiltrate the inner circle of the popular Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). Oliver is drawn to Felix, and not in a strictly platonic way. It’s unclear if Felix will ever reciprocate, but he does invite Oliver to spend the summer at his family’s estate, Saltburn. Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant are hilarious as Felix’s parents, who are so cartoonishly waspy that their portrayals are actually spot-on. If Oliver wants to get to Felix, he’ll have to go through his angsty sister (Alison Oliver), his suspicious cousin (Archie Madekwe), and a tightly wound butler (Paul Rhys) first.
Like Graceland in Priscilla – another movie starring Jacob Elordi – Saltburn sucks us in with its grand aesthetic. Yet, there’s something darker lurking behind the estate’s towering doors. For much of the film, we’re not sure where exactly that darkness is rooted. The mansion is like Wonderland contained under one roof. That might make Oliver the story’s Alice, although there may be a darkness within him as well. Fennell’s screenplay keeps you guessing who can be trusted – if anybody. Just as she did with Promising Young Woman, you never know where Saltburn will take you next.
Unlike Promising Young Woman, however, Saltburn can come off as unfocused for much of its runtime. The film is riddled with several scenes that range from unpleasant to borderline unnecessary. You get the impression that Fennell was given free rein, which can be a blessing and a curse. Fennell has cited excess as a key theme of the film. In that sense, Saltburn might accomplish what it sets out to do. Much like a character’s wine glass during the third act, though, it begins to overflow, leaving a red stain on the tablecloth.
As excessive as Saltburn can be, Fennell reminds us why we should stay with a movie until the credits roll. Fennell delivers a killer ending that puts much of the film into perspective. It doesn’t fix every detail, but the audience suddenly realizes what Fennell was going for from the opening scene. Saltburn is like completing a puzzle without the box to help. It’s easy to get frustrated, especially if you don’t know what it’s building toward. Once a few essential pieces fall into place, though, you’re glad that you put in the time and effort. Even if a few pieces still don’t fit, you’re left with an image that’s hard not to admire.