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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'Saltburn': A Stylish Thriller That Lacks Substance

There are few filmmakers who have rose to prominence in the past few years who are as divisive as Emerald Fennell. Her debut feature, Promising Young Woman garnered positive reviews from critics and audiences alike, and Fennell ended up winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and was nominated for Best Director. However, the film was also met with sharp criticism due to how it broached topics such as sexual assault and revenge. The discourse surrounding Promising Young Woman has led people questioning Fennell's filmmaking abilities, as well as her politics and worldview. Both her fans and detractors are quite vocal, but Fennell has not let the backlash stop her. With her second film, Saltburn, Fennell shifts her focus to the upper class, crafting a tense, psychological thriller with elements of satire. You can tell she is trying to step up her game a little bit, as she plays with varied genres, employs different visual techniques, and tries to push the envelope even further than she did in her debut. It's certainly a big swing from her, but Saltburn largely feels like a case of style over substance. It's clear that Fennell is wanting to prove herself even more with this film, and visually speaking, it is quite striking. But under the surface, it's not quite the deep, incredibly shocking film she clearly intended to make.

Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is a young, awkward student attending Oxford University on scholarship. He has a hard time making friends due to others seeing him as poor, but eventually forms a bond with a wealthy and well-liked student named Felix (Jacob Elordi). When Oliver experiences personal tragedy at the end of the school year, Felix invites him to spend the summer with his family at their massive estate. He agrees, and soon meets Felix's eccentric family. As the summer goes on, Oliver becomes more and more infatuated with Felix, and strange events begin to transpire that could change Oliver's life forever.

While watching this film, it was hard for me not to think of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Anyone who has seen that film or read Patricia Highsmith's novel is familiar will likely have a similar experience while watching Saltburn, as the two share quite a few similarities. Both are about obsession, class disparities, and are psychological thrillers that take unexpected turns. The prime difference between the two is that Ripley is tightly constructed and legitimately surprising. Saltburn, while not without a couple of surprises, mostly feels predictable, and once you know where it's heading, everything going forward is so obvious. This is mainly in the film's third act, which basically feels like Fennell is holding the viewer's hand and explaining everything to them. This is especially frustrating, as the first two acts are honestly quite good. But once the film starts spoonfeeding all the answers, we have already figured out where the film is heading, and it just feels like Fennell doesn't trust her audience to connect the dots. I found myself saying "Okay! I get it already!" several times in the last 10 minutes, and was just irritated at how much the film spells everything out. The film could have been so much stronger if it just allowed the audience to form their own connections and piece everything together themselves, but the way the film chooses to spill everything at the end just ends up doing it a great disservice.

It doesn't help that the film's attempts at satire feels so facile, and that it doesn't have all that much to say about class at all. The differences between the wealthy characters and Oliver do fuel much of the film, but the digs it tries to make at the upper class feel so basic. There are maybe a couple of moments where the statements the film tries to make on classism are effective, but they largely land with a thud. The film does succeed more as a psychological thriller, as the relationship between Oliver and Felix is far more interesting and much more developed than the rest of the film. I can't help but feel that if Fennell focused more on the characters of this film as opposed to making larger statements or giving the impression that the film is full of deep, insightful commentary, I probably would have enjoyed it more. It's as if she's a bit too in her own head with this film, which is a shame because it comes close to being great. If it weren't for the weak satire and the overexplaining at the end, I probably would have been more on board with this film, but these elements just didn't sit right with me.

I will say that Fennell's direction is a bit stronger in this film, as she has a clear vision that feels more realized compared to the script. She seems to work well with her actors, and is able to get good performances out of them. She includes a lot of shocking imagery, which at times feels like she's trying to make the film a more transgressive work. More often than not, these come across as if the film is going for shock value rather than using these moments to drive forward the narrative. However, the visual flair Fennell brings to the film is quite solid, and is eye-catching to say the least. The production design is pretty great, as the mansion that most of the film takes place in is gorgeous, as is the land around it. Certain details, such as the hedge maze, the pond, and a nearby field, are well utilized, and help fill out the world of Saltburn nicely. It all feels so grand and elevated, and really plays into how wealthy Felix and his family are.

The cinematography from Linus Sandgren is great as well, as he frames each scene beautifully, and uses color excellently througout the film. He also uses light in a highly effective way, both in the way specific scenes are lit and the colored lighting seen in the film's party scenes. There is also a scene in the back half of the film that uses red light that is rather strong, and speaks to the larger points the Fennell is trying to make. I will say that the use of Academy ratio didn't particularly work for me, as it doesn't serve much purpose to the overall film. Fennell has been quoted by saying that this is to give the idea that the audience is "peeping in" which works for some scenes, but feels unnecessary for others. It's an interesting choice that gives the film a bit more character, but I am still a bit unsure how to feel about it in execution. If nothing else, Fennell has a clear eye for making her films look good, and she works with her crew quite well to make sure her films are visually appealing. Some of her stylistic flourishes can feel a bit extraneous, but I'd rather this film have a bit too much in this department than too little.

The film also uses music in an interesting way, featuring a largely orchestral score from Anthony Willis, with elements of electronic music included in certain moments. The score fits the more idealized version most people have of the music people associate with films about people living in a lavish estate, but the electronic bits, along with the film's use of late 2000s needledrops give us a sense of the time period in which it takes place. The contrast between these two styles of music creates a bit of unease, but they also provide a mixture of the more blue-blooded sensibilities of Felix's family, and the youthfulness of the film's primary characters. Some of the needledrops are a bit obvious, but they largely fit within the context of the film. The music really underlines the film's uneasy atmosphere well, and is truly one of the more surprising aspects of the film.

Barry Keoghan is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors, and his work in this film adds more fuel to this fire. Keoghan is so game for everything this film asks him to do, and he plays Oliver's obsessions, awkwardness, and his more clever, perceptive mindset so perfectly. He makes you wonder if he is hiding certain details, and if he has any ulterior motives all throughout the film, and keeps you guessing on what his intentions really are. It's one of Keoghan's best performances to date, and further proves that he is one of our most fascinating actors working today. Jacob Elordi is also quite good, as he plays up the charm of Felix and functions as an almost mythic, goldenboy type. The character isn't the most developed, but he has enough presence to make Felix pop. Keoghan and Elordi are great together, and clearly have chemistry. I would love to see them work together again in the future, as they are such a good pair in this film.

The film has a decent bench of supporting cast members, starting with Richard E. Grant who is a pure delight. He has this jaunty energy that is rather infectious, and adds to the unease of the film. Rosamund Pike is also fantastic, hitting more of the comedic energy the film is going for and having a solid screen presence. Pike's character is very thinly written, but she elevates the character significantly, emerging as one of the film's best performances. Newcomers Alison Oliver and Archie Madekwe do some great work as well, playing Felix's sister and cousin, respectively. Oliver, in particular, has a great monologue near the end that she nails. The monologue itself kind of lays what we already know at that point on pretty thick, but Oliver delivers it so well that I don't mind it that much. Madekwe plays an interesting role in the film, as he is a bit of an antagonist to Oliver. His character, Farleigh, is the only one who comes close to being as crafty as Oliver, and the back and forth between the two is quite invigorating. Madekwe holds his own against Keoghan, and is such an interesting opposing force to his character.

Saltburn is the type of film that has several elements that I really like, but the issues I have with the film are rather substantial, and take the film down a few notches for me. The ending is the main thing that I can't ignore, as it makes me feel like Emerald Fennell doesn't trust her audience. Hopefully, this is something she can learn from, as the spoonfeeding the film does at the end is the main thing that keeps it from being so much better than it actually is. But all issues I have aside, I have to say that I generally like this film. It's a bit frustrating and misses the mark in a couple of spots, but as a whole, its rather fascinating and delightfully indulgent. In viewing it as more of a psychological thriller, it works rather well, but it definitely doesn't stand up when viewed as a satire of class. It certainly doesn't help Fennell's divisive reputation, as this will only make her biggest critics angrier, and her biggest fans love her even more. Personally, I feel like Fennell has some good instincts and qualities as a filmmaker, but she still has a few things to figure out. I have hope that she will improve with time, but this film is a bit of a mess. That said, it's the kind of mess that I can't help but appreciate certain aspects of, and I can at least admire that Fennell is taking some serious swings here. Saltburn succeeds as a stylish, psychologically tense film, and if it was just going for that, I might have liked it more. Regardless, I can't help but be entranced by certain aspects of the film, and still found plenty to like about it despite my issues with it.

Rating: 3.5/5

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