Saltburn (dir. Emerald Fennell)

By: Adam Freed

A tantalizing premise attached to a promising young filmmaker is almost always a reason for celebration.  Especially when the film’s premise includes an invitation into the seedy and elitist world of British wealth and influence.  The downside of promise however is that it is not based in reality, rather it is an optimistic navigational tool in search of success, not defined by it.  Despite the promise of sophomore filmmaker Emerald Fennell and her conceptually enticing film Saltburn, the harsh illumination of reality reveals a chaotic film that devolves into a self reverential mess falling far short of delivering upon its considerable promise.  

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with films that delightfully devolve into chaotic madness. After all, this is the gorgeous thumbprint of Darren Aronofsky’s design. Despite the visionary talent she demonstrates in her debut Promising Young Woman (2020), it would be incredibly nearsighted to compare Fennell and Aronofsky.   The harshest truth that Saltburn must face is that in every aim it makes at a lasting impact, similar, and superior moments have previously been perfected elsewhere.  Prime evidence of this failure to deliver is Jacob Elordi, who as Oxford elitist Felix Catton, is intended to be an irresistible force, who despite the vapid nature of his existence, remains uncontrollably magnetic.  Saltburn only works if Elordi garners universal irresistibility which, despite his physical prowess, he is nowhere close to achieving.  The prime example of the charm and gravitational pull required of Elordi is Jude Law’s unforgettably charismatic Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999).  Comparably snobbish and smarmy, Law is the performance against which Eloridi must be measured because it is Ripley that perfected the character blueprint and Saltburn that attempts its recreation.   

Saltburn rubs its period piece status into the eyes of its audience announcing ad nauseam the film’s 2006 setting.  Fennell seems confoundingly nostalgic for a time vaguely worthy of memory.  Needle drops from Kings of Leon and MGMT accompanying a momentary glance at Superbad (2007) are hardly conventionally celebrated cultural cornerstones of reverence.  The film’s iconography of derivative art does very little to acquit itself on the charge of being void of meaning.  Comparatively, the reverentially nostalgic triumphs of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000) and Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993), utilize period specific settings in celebration of memorable bygone eras in which the world of art was being established rather than merely echoed. 

To be fair, Saltburn offers more than a handful of moments in which glimpses of Fennell’s promise are delightfully exposed. Much of the first act’s cinematography aptly renders Oxford’s golden hours and leather-bound rooms, sufficiently building a world easily passable as enticing.  The performance of Barry Keoghan (The Banshees of Inisherin) who as Oliver Quick, is believable and duplicitous despite the convoluted path down which he is asked to walk.  Keoghan’s power is the inherent sympathy he garners from audiences, a wounded bird of sorts, who here toys with a weaponized version of this persona to the film’s benefit.  Keoghan’s best work is most certainly in front of him, and while he may not regret the experience of Saltburn, it will one day become an afterthought within the promise of his growing filmography.  Much like Keoghan’s Quick on the grounds of the Saltburn Estate,  Emerald Fennell's Saltburn is all dressed up with nowhere meaningful to go.   

Target Score: 4.5/10 - Emerald Fennell’s second film is lavishly stylish but vacant of substance.  Saltburn amounts to a shock value film wallowing in grotesquery masquerading as sensuality.  Despite the considerable talents of both the filmmaker and notable cast, the production devolves into a mess that cannot be saved by a somewhat predictable and self reverential third act.   

Although Saltburn was a 2023 release, the review was published in 2024.