by Hope Madden
Somewhere on the other side of Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers lurks Emerald Fennell’s bacchanal, Saltburn.
Oliver (Barry Keoghan), a loner attending Oxford on scholarship, is befriended by the most beautiful, richest of the rich, Felix (Jacob Elordi, so good earlier this year in Priscilla). They become such good friends at school that Felix invites Ollie home to Saltburn, his family’s honest to God castle, for summer break.
A tale of casual cruelty versus calculated cruelty, Saltburn flirts with any number of have-nots in a have land stories: Rebecca, The Little Stranger, and most evidently, The Talented Mr. Ripley. That doesn’t mean the Oscar winner who penned Promising Young Woman lacks an original thought on the matter.
Fennell’s film is a seduction, sensuality dripping from every frame, every image – the interiors, the grounds, the bodies. On display is unimaginable wealth, and the fantasy of decadence and isolation that accompanies it. Felix’s family is drawn to Ollie like vampires to human flesh and blood. That they will tire of him is inevitable, and that he will do terrible things to remain in their graces is also inevitable. But that’s not truly the story.
And even if you have a clear sense of the direction the story will take, the tension will break you.
Not everything works in Fennell’s film, but man, Keoghan does. No one plays the vulnerable, potentially dangerous outsider quite as he does. Elordi is tender and lovely in an appropriately superficial way, and Gran Turismo’s Archie Madekwe nails the insecure wealthy-by-technicality cousin with ease.
The image of vacuous wealth becomes cartoonish, however wonderful Richard E. Grant and Rosamund Pike are as Felix’s wildly oblivious, inhumanly privileged parents.
It’s tough to watch a film that asks you to empathize with, much less pity, the grotesquely wealthy. Luckily, Fennell doesn’t. Her effort is far more cynical, finding obscene wealth and the desire for obscene wealth equally unappealing, if not equally villainous.
The filmmaker loses her way before she gets to the magnificent final dance scene. We relive clues and take a hard turn that feels too genre for what had been a glorious mess. In the end, Saltburn often feels like a story you’ve seen before, told with more style and meanness. But style and meanness count for something, and this cast understands that.