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Film review: Opulent aesthetics can’t save ‘Saltburn’ from narrative vacuity

Barry Keoghan (left) and Archie Madekwe (right) play Oliver and Farleigh in “Saltburn.” The second feature film from Academy Award-winning writer and director Emerald Fennell released in theaters on Friday. (Courtesy of MGM and Amazon Studios)


Directed by Emerald Fennell


Nov. 17

By Natalie Agnew

Nov. 18, 2023 5:31 p.m.

This post was updated Nov. 19 at 7:12 p.m.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Despite ceaseless stylistic brilliance, “Saltburn” is more fizzle than flame.

The sordid thriller ignited in theaters Friday, spotlighting the tale of an outsider at Oxford University thrust into the staggering aristocratic estate Saltburn for a summer with his magnetic classmate. In a follow-up to “Promising Young Woman,” the second film from Academy Award-winning writer and director Emerald Fennell glitters with her unmistakably aesthetic frames and star-studded central performances. Nevertheless, the picture’s tonally muddled narrative hinges on absurdist shock value and clumsily telegraphed twists, producing a visually dazzling but vacant satire.

[Related: Film review: Quietly haunting and eye-opening, ‘Priscilla’ challenges the Presleys’ legacy]

Lovingly ripping off “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” the picture portrays unreliable narrator Oliver’s (Barry Keoghan) consuming obsession with the entrancingly affluent Felix (Jacob Elordi) in vivid technicolor. In a theatrical three-act structure set against the backdrop of intricate production design from Suzie Davies, the film opens at Oxford, escalates at the entrance of Saltburn’s towering gates and devolves into macabre madness by the final curtain. “Saltburn” could never be accused of doing too little, as it manages to fuse melodrama, exaggerated eroticism and a heavy dose of pitch-black comedy in its 127-minute runtime.

It is in its style that the film soars – immersive and atmospheric, every shot is distinctly tailored with an authentically pitch-perfect 2006 soundtrack to match. Camp is the name of the game, and “Saltburn” immediately commits as the gothic red font of the title card crashes into the oversaturated Oxford campus at the crescendo of “Zadok the Priest.” Captured by “La La Land” cinematographer Linus Sandgren, the uniquely boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio constrains every frame, mirroring the narrow perspective of the narrator. These visual elements complement yet never overshadow the performances at center stage.

With his first major leading role, Keoghan smoothly establishes Oliver as the ostensibly gauche observer from his first clumsy steps onto campus, desperately peering through the window at the admired Felix. He channels the quiet, off-beat menace reminiscent of his role in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” with a veneer of insecure innocence that slips the further the film progresses. Countering Keoghan, Elordi is characteristically impressive in his second project released this month, carrying the engrossing charisma of his previous Elvis portrayal with added amiability and petulant edge. Superb character actors support the central two, including Rosamund Pike as the eccentric matriarch, an unrecognizable Carey Mulligan playing a peculiar guest and newcomer Alison Oliver as Felix’s sister.

However, despite the strength of their respective execution, these exaggerated figures never reach past their initial impressions as comical caricatures and fail to provide any nuance. There is nothing relatable or sympathetic about the flawed protagonist Oliver, who coolly sheds any sliver of identity to slink after Felix for a slice of high society. Even the relationship between the two lacks believability, with its foundation resting upon repetitive flashy techno montages of parties spliced with sparse conversations completed by cliche voiceovers. It is this superficial character construction that makes the scattered, lurid spectacles all the less convincing.

When the glow of the initial intrigue begins to dim, the film introduces fireworks of sporadic, graphically gratuitous sex scenes to shock the audience into interest. Between Oliver menacingly slurping the dredges of Felix’s bathwater and calling himself a “vampire” after an appallingly bloody act, to name a few, the jarring tone shifts are laughable at best. But, the picture falls completely off the rails in the third act when all attempts at comedy are forgone and the family is picked off one by one with a dimly colored, emotionally hollow tragedy.

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Instantaneously, with the unmasking of the killer, “Saltburn” crosses into self-parody, pulling up the curtain for an unnecessary reveal that is both predictable and condescending. In the shock of all shocks, the pathological liar who was consistently accompanied by ominous music was the killer all along – but the film is not in on the joke. To make matters worse, Oliver says the cliche phrase, “Is there such thing as an accident?” accompanied by a montage of his dastardly deeds, such as sabotaging Felix’s bike tire and typing random keys while pretending to write in a cafe.

Unceremoniously eliminating the last family member who stands in his way, Oliver victoriously waltzes naked through the empty estate to an on-the-nose needle drop of “Murder on the Dancefloor.” Still, Fennell’s script never seeks to answer the question of his motives and their wavering justification, also failing to delve past its buzzy eat-the-rich exterior. Met with this insufficient catharsis, it becomes obvious that just like the opulent empty rooms, the film is brimming with style but has nothing worthwhile to say.

Enthralled theatergoers will get lost in the outrageous intoxication of “Saltburn,” but the film loses itself along the way.

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Natalie Agnew
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