“Saltburn,” writer/director Emerald Fennell’s follow up to her Oscar-winning “Promising Young Woman,” is a delicious cuckoo-in-the-nest story. The dazzling pre-credit sequence sets the stage; Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) claims that he “wasn’t in love with” Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) — even though everyone thought he was. Images of Felix, lying shirtless in the sun, kissing a female classmate, or just smiling, emphasize how handsome and appealing Felix is. (Fennell and cinematographer Linus Sandgren objectify and fetishize Elordi in ways that will make women and gay men swoon).
Oliver recounts his experiences with Felix, which form the spine of the film, a twisted story of class, attraction, and yes, murder.
The two young men meet at Oxford as part of the class of 2006. Felix is a member of the cool crowd, which includes his gay cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe). In contrast, Oliver is a scholarship student whose only friend is Jake (Will Gibson) a math whiz/geek. After Oliver bikes past Felix, who is waylaid with a flat tire, Felix befriends “Ollie” and folds him into his clique. Jake, jealous, warns Ollie, “He’ll grow bored with you,” but Ollie is seduced by the privileged class. Moreover, when Ollie recounts the death of his father, as well as the difficulties he has with his drunk mother — one anecdote begins, “the first time I put my fingers down her throat…” — Felix pities Ollie. Felix cares because Ollie is “real,” and invites his downtrodden friend to his family home, Saltburn, an estate with hot and cold running servants.
“Saltburn” pivots on the bromance between Ollie and Felix, and while that aspect of the film should have been stronger, it is enjoyable to watch Keoghan and Elordi make eyes at each other without ever kissing. Oliver certainly does what he can to ingratiate himself with Felix’s parents, playing to Elspeth’s (Rosamund Pike) and Sir James’ (Richard E. Grant) vanities. But then there is Farleigh telling Ollie that he “almost passes;” he sees right though this interloper’s charade. Even so, Oliver transfixes Felix’s bulimic sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver), getting her to eat. He also has a sexual relationship with her, and that makes Felix jealous.
Felix shouldn’t worry; in one of the film’s more outrageous scenes, Ollie slurps Felix’s bathwater after the hunk pleasures himself in the tub.
Fennell leans into the upper-crust decadence which provides much of the film’s pleasures as the louche Catton youths sunbathe naked, play tennis in tuxedos, and more. There is a fabulous costume party which gives Sir James a chance to wear his suit of armor, and a darkly comic moment when a character’s death prompts Elspeth to quip, “She’ll do anything for attention.”
Fennell has fun satirizing her upper-crust twits who reveal their silliness all by themselves. (Elspeth’s remarks about her lesbian phase or her lack of knowledge are hilarious.)
Mostly, however, the film is focused on Oliver, who is far more calculating than everyone save Farleigh, might expect. Yes, it is awkward when he complains about runny eggs at breakfast, but the longer he stays at Saltburn, the more he manipulates everyone.
There is a suggestion that Ollie is “one of Felix’s toys,” as well as a mention of a previous friend of Felix’s who was ejected from the estate, but Fennell does not concentrate on those details sufficiently. The film’s greatest flaw is that Felix’s interest in Oliver is undeveloped. Oliver’s attraction to Felix’s family and his money is much clearer. Moreover, Farleigh is presented as a shit-stirrer, and the battle they have over Felix is interesting but never quite escalates to an intense degree. Farleigh may try to humiliate Oliver by a forced karaoke performance, but Oliver has no compunction about going into the gay Farleigh’s room at night and screwing him — as well as screwing him over by getting Farleigh in trouble with Sir James. Such is Oliver’s twisted nature and means of self-preservation.
What Oliver wants is hardly a mystery and the tension of “Saltburn” pivots on if Oliver will succeed, even when he is exposed. Felix makes a discovery that he sees as a betrayal — one that sets the film’s last act in motion and involves bodies piling up. It may feel contrived, but in Fennell’s hands it is satisfying — at least on initial viewing. (Like her previous film, “Promising Young Woman,” the story falls apart if scrutinized too closely.)
“Saltburn” is not deep, but Keoghan is deeply invested in his performance, which is what makes the film so watchable. He is cut from the Ripley mold, and his codeswitching is enjoyable. His flattery is supercilious, and his naïveté is deceptively charming. Keoghan is unselfconscious as an actor here, letting Oliver’s cunning seep through, almost winking at viewers as he enacts his dastardly plan. In one of the best scenes, Oliver squirms during an unexpected visit. Keoghan’s body language here has him seething internally in ways that reveal his true character.
Jacob Elordi, in contrast, is given little to do other than be blindingly handsome, which he is. But his appeal is meant to make Oliver desire him, and it works. In support, Archie Madekwa injects the film with some verve, and Pike and Grant are both highly amusing in their roles.
“Saltburn” doesn’t linger in the mind; the conceit, once revealed, is hardly surprising. But Keoghan gives this film his all and it is marvelous showcase for his talents. It is fun to watch him behaving badly and even as he dances naked through Saltburn, an expression of his joy and freedom at tasting the good life. It is hard not to smile and wince.
“Saltburn” | Directed by Emerald Fennell | Opening Nov. 17 at the Angelika Film Center | Distributed by Amazon Studios/MGM