With acid running in its veins where the blue blood is supposed to go, Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn is an invigoratingly nasty and hilarious piece of work—the vicious “eat the rich and spit out their bones and fuck their corpses to completion for good measure” class satire that we have earned and that we deserve in 2023. Like her Promising Young Woman before it, this is a movie that’s slyly furious at the state of the world underneath its sexy gorgeous dreamy veneer—Saltburn doesn’t just want to let us vicariously live the fantasy life. It wants to hollow the fantasy life out and wear its skin and do a horny dance on its grave. It is showing us the one true way and light so strap yourselves in!
More Teorema than The Talented Mr. Ripley, this scathing Saltburn stars the legend-in-the-making Barry Keoghan as the college boy Oliver Quick—a Dickensian name if ever there was one, which up-front subconsciously weaponizes our compassion over to the side of the poor and downtrodden orphan Oliver sells himself as to his brand new upper-class classmates at Oxford. Telling a woeful tale of dissolute home-life—Papa was a rolling stone, et cetera—it doesn’t take long for Oliver to capture the sympathetic ear of Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), the B.M.O.C.. Literally, as Elordi’s six-foot-five-inch beanpole frame keeps his head floating ever clear, ever clean, well above the crowd. Untouchable boy, you’s about to get touched.
And nowhere does Fennell find more feral humor than she does in the wafer-thin altruism of the rich—Felix’s pretty eyes flutter with a kindness and generous concern toward Oliver … as long as it keeps those eyes of his looking pretty, that is. And, more importantly, keeps them being looked upon. Set in the Aughts but (as all good period pieces do being more about our current moment refracted) it’s not enough to just look good—one must seem good. One must sweat and bleed and ejaculate goodness. A spray tan of decency cast over one’s gleaming abs—it’s the Pismo Beach Disaster Relief Fund from Clueless all over again.
And so Oliver quickly becomes Felix’s charity case of choice—and we eventually learn he has a habit of this; of bringing home stray wounded birds to bat them around as playthings until he’s tired of them and moves on. It’s a routine we’ve seen in many such stories before—our plain-Jane Nick Carraway narrator looking in to the gleaming lives of the rich and famous until they get burned. And for this summer, it becomes oh-so-lucky Oliver’s turn to be the plaything. So our best boy Oliver heads home with Felix to his grand estate, the one that gives the film its title. That’s where the old-money Catton family lay about like lions in the sun, blithely letting the flies feast on their dead skin for sustenance. Enjoy it while it lasts, ol’ Olly, good chap.
And meeting Felix’s family is where the film really shoots off into the stratosphere, entertainment-wise, which should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen the film’s cast list or opening credits. We’ve got Richard E. Grant playing Sir James the father; Rosamund Pike is our former model turned mother Elspeth; Alison Oliver is wastrel sister Venetia, a ruin of mascara and sequins; and Archie Madekwe is layabout cousin Farleigh (whom we’ve already met given he’s a sneering classmate of the boys at Oxford—the Philip Seymour Hoffman role, if you will). And each of these actors multiplies the flavor of the one beside them, each one winding Fennell’s dialogue and situational comedies through their fangs like honeyed prey. They each deeply get how awful these people are, and they each make a bloody laugh-out-loud feast of every savory morsel.
Look no further than “Poor Dear Pamela”—which is literally how Carey Mulligan’s character is credited in the film. She is Elspeth’s wildly ridiculous friend who’s far overstayed her welcome at Saltburn, and Mulligan steals every single frame of film she’s scorched into with her shock of maroon hair and vulgar stupidity. Her role is small but delectable; there is one split second of footage of Mulligan reacting dumbly to a horror film that the family’s watching on TV that gave me the heartiest guffaw I’ve had in a movie theater this year.
Saltburn becomes a whirlwind of moment-to-moment showcases like that, where each time an actor’s on-screen, it’s suddenly the greatest thing we’ve ever seen. The merry-go-round stops for no one—they’re each their own uproarious spectacles of self-importance—but it’s probably safe to say that (save Keoghan) most people will walk out of Saltburn with Rosamund Pike’s riotous performance sealed to their lips. Barely seeing the world past the tips of her manicure, her Elspeth is exhilaratingly daft—a vapid phony under a thin scrim of personality, she seems the type who’d nonchalantly ask the moon to stop blocking her light during an eclipse and expect it to happen. Her awfulness is so second nature it’s first-class.
It’s from his mother that Felix gets his feigned philanthropic tendencies, and you can trace its lineage across their dueling furrowed brows —what an awful world out there, so full of ugliness, let us be the grace they seek just by, you know, existing and being pretty in their vicinity or whatever. Until we sense ingratitude, or grow indifferent, anyway.
And Oliver balances as many spinning plates for as long as any human being possibly could in this house of madness—like Terence Stamp and Matt Damon before him, he proves very good at being the thing each person needs in the world at the precise moment they need it. But inevitably, a wobble works its way in. And as it does Oliver’s own machinations become suspect—just who is this icy-eyed doe in their midst anyway? And just what does he want? And… wait, what is he doing with the bathwater? Fennell leans hard into the suspicions we all carry into a story like this—we’ve all seen (and commiserated with) the way Damon looked at Jude Law in that bath-tub, after all.
So Fennell leans into those homoerotic expectations at the bottom of it all … and then she leans further and harder and way, way past all of that. Saltburn, bless its blackest poisoned heart, blossoms into a full opera of perversity after a certain point, and there’s no looking back. Nor would we want to by then! Its vision of love is one of madness; one of humiliation and immolation. Of devouring a thing to become literal one. Or perhaps none. Oliver is a fever-stricken termite in lust with wood, dropping the whole house down to satiate his thirst—he can’t stop, he won’t stop, until he gobbles up grandma, the three bears, and every speck of spoogey porridge in every fancy pot.
The relationship between Felix and Oliver is the deviant heart of Saltburn, and for his part, Elordi in the less showy, more obvious role is very good—there’s not much surprise in Felix, he is exactly who we think he is. But Elordi makes real enough his Trojan Horse sweetness so we too fall under its spell despite its shimmering veneer obviousness.
But Saltburn is well and truly The Keoghan Show, and what a gift. A delicious little pervert who explodes the queer villain archetype outward turning rage into baroque poetry, Oliver is sex and fury consummated in Keoghan’s lithe satyric turn. (He puts the Pan in pansexual.) Watch the watcher snatch the title of the watched—through sheer force of will the voyeur becomes all the object of desire we need. It’s a turn for the ages, quite possibly the performance of the year (give or take an Andrew Scott), and my new hero all wrapped up in one. Be all the Oliver you can be, and burn it the fuck down.