Saltburn is a car crash of a film: it’s awful, and yet you can’t look away. It’s two completely different things rammed together, with disastrous results. It’s expensive—and utterly meaningless.
That’s not to say it’s all bad. It’s a beautiful film, and beautifully made. The 4:3 ratio, chosen to fit the form of the country house and the number of close-up shots of faces, is unusual but wonderfully effective. The needle drops—a mix of retro hits, early noughties bangers, and songs that specifically soundtracked the summer of 2007—are expertly chosen and deployed. ‘This Modern Love’ by Bloc Party is one of my favourite songs of all time and I loved seeing it get better recognition, even if its use was somewhat obtuse.
The central performances are all brilliant, particularly Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant as the repressed and controlling parents, who both chew the scenery in the best possible way, and they’re clearly having great fun throughout. It’s surprisingly funny, for a thriller, although I’ve seen it billed as a black comedy, but it’s not that funny. In the screening I went to, several moments of utmost tension were met with stifled giggles and bursts of awkward laughter—not the expected reaction, I’m sure.
Like Emerald Fennell’s feature debut, Saltburn feels like a singular work, written and directed by the selfsame person. While this gave Promising Young Woman a unique and powerful perspective, I can’t help but think that Saltburn might have benefited from a second screenwriter, another pair of eyes. Fennell has nothing really interesting to say about class, or sexuality, or race—all topics that are introduced without being interrogated. The film is ultimately aimed at an American audience, I think, and therefore fails entirely in terms of authenticity.
One of two changes would have infinitely improved the film as a whole: maybe if it was a proper period piece and could luxuriate in the styling and the detailing. Fennell was clearly influenced by E.M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, Daphne du Maurier and the various adaptations for both television and film. Country houses and the upper classes never change—this is certainly a possible, albeit unoriginal, observation. “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” etc. etc.
Alternatively, I think the film would be infinitely improved if the focus was Jacob Elordi’s Felix, rather than Oliver (played by Barry Keoghan). Felix is an interesting character who is largely reduced to two dimensions. He’s precisely the type of kid who is groomed from a young age to be a Tory MP or an FTSE 100 CEO. These are, unfortunately, the corridors of power in Britain. How might Felix deal with these expectations—and how does the arrival of Oliver fit into this narrative? None of this is explored; his privilege doesn’t explicitly lead to his downfall. The film as a whole remains entirely apolitical, despite the subject matter being fundamentally politicised.
While some of the mid-noughties specifics are cute and nostalgic (people reading hardback copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in particular), others felt anachronistic. The posh kids call Oliver a “scholarship kid,” as if this isn’t Blairite Britain, with student loans and maintenance grants. Emerald Fennell has singlehandedly undone years of outreach and development work by Oxbridge colleges, hoping to distance themselves from outdated stereotypes of exclusionary toffs and lazy private school snobs.
I’m sure some people would spend a whole summer luxuriating at their family homes in the country, but many of the most privileged people I met at uni used this time to build their CVs, either interning in the City or volunteering in Southeast Asia, miles from the English countryside.
Ultimately, the film fails because Oliver Quick as a character has no motivation for his actions. His entire narrative is based around plot twists and reversals—you think he’s one thing, and then it’s revealed that he’s something else. But there’s no consistency. Beneath every mask is another mask but there’s nothing underneath it all. Such postmodern commentary might be worthwhile although, again, hardly original—but why apply it to Oliver, a quintessential nobody? We have no reason to care for him, in positive or negative valence. His vacancy says nothing.
The moments of exposition towards the end are largely unnecessary and, if anything, talk down to the viewer. It was clear that Oliver did it. A moment of doubt, an iota of misdirection, a smidgen of the whodunnit—anything to give these revelations some suspense. Indeed, the fact there was zero police suspicion makes no sense. There’s an eyewitness who can place Oliver with Felix in the maze, the last time he was seen alive. How did he so readily get his hands on such an effective yet undetectable poison? And what about the random 15-year gap: he was happy to kill three of the family, but patiently waited for time to take the fourth?
I don’t even want to go into that bath scene. It’s provocative for the sake of provocation, designed to be memed and discussed, with nothing actually to say, either within the film or beyond it. And I found the final scene utterly excruciating. ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’ is a certified banger, let’s be clear, but this is a movie that could have featured an actual murder on an actual dance floor and missed the opportunity.
And look, I know it’s a fictional country home but surely, surely, an estate called Saltburn is going to be somewhere on the coast? You know the type: an Agatha Christie-style manor perched atop a dramatic cliff, great waves breaking against jagged rocks at the bottom. A name so evocative, yet none of these connotations are played with, even slightly.
Not every movie needs to have a moral, a message, or meaning. Perhaps Oliver is just an agent of chaos, unleashed within this country house because it’s a beautiful and eerie location to shoot a film. Saltburn might best be understood as a dozen enjoyable set pieces and tense sequences ingloriously sutured together. It’s a romp—and a largely fun one at that. After all, subtlety and cohesion are overrated, right?