A daft but undeniably amusing stick in the eye that dares to imagine what Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Teorema” might have been like as a piece of Abercrombie & Fitch spon-con from 2003 (a magical time when shirtless hunks stood outside of history’s most pungent mall stores like bouncers to a world of elite white belonging), Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn” is a movie sustained by the friction between identity and reinvention, and therefore a fitting second feature by a filmmaker whose Oscar-winning debut made it hard to tell if she was an underachieving dramatist or an overachieving provocateur.
If nothing else, the even more self-assured “Saltburn” puts that question to bed for the time being. Another smirking and vaguely satirical psycho-thriller that wants to have its cake, eat it too, and then soil the plate for good measure, Fennell’s immaculately crafted follow-up to “Promising Young Woman” might have a lot more fun pushing your buttons if it had any clue how to get under your skin. It’s exciting when someone makes a movie bursting with raw talent and half-cocked ideas — much less so when they make two of them in a row.
On second thought, “half-cocked” probably isn’t the right word to describe a film that calls such loving attention to its lead actor’s penis. And while it’s hard not to wish that Fennell’s pop art had a bit more fizz to it, it’s even harder to be mad at someone for casting Barry Keoghan as a Ripley-esque outsider who systematically fucks with and/or over an entire family of entitled British aristocrats for the better part of two hours.
Every bit as impishly beguiling here as he was in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” Keoghan stars as Oxford newbie Oliver Quick, class of 2006, who shows up for his first day at the storied college with all the grace of Harry Potter fumbling into Hogwarts. An orphaned muggle in a magical place whose other students appear to have known each other since birth, Oliver isn’t on campus for two munutes before his attention lands on his antithesis: Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), an old money demi-god whose poreless skin and perfect smile make his face into a funhouse mirror that only reflects your most hideous flaws. And yet, the halo that follows above Felix wherever he goes casts such a flattering light on those around him that nobody is able to resist its glow.
Felix is kind, even if his sort of kindness is always fringed with pity, and he’s thrilled to adopt a charity case like Oliver into his clique as a reward for helping him out in a pinch. They (somewhat unconvincingly) grow close enough that Felix eventually invites Oliver to spend the summer at his family’s sprawling 12th century estate, Saltburn, where they can lay by the pool and listen to MGMT in peace. It sounds like the stuff of a grand holiday in the making, the only problem is that Felix has inherited his parents’ belief that other people can be discarded like old toys whenever they’re no longer fun to play with, while Oliver’s vibe is a bit more “obsessively stand in the garden outside of his new bestie’s dorm room so that he can watch him have sex in the middle of the night.” There’s one in every friendship.
“I wasn’t in love with Felix,” Oliver stresses during the flashforwards that Fennell uses to bookend her film, but their bond is sealed by a certain homoeroticism all the same. That “Saltburn” is reluctant to put too fine a point on it is initially one of the screenplay’s greatest strengths. There’s only so much ambiguity to the scene in which Oliver slurps down Felix’s leftover bath water (one of many silly-serious gestures in a movie that also finds Oliver dry-humping a burial plot and painting someone’s face with their own menstrual blood in the moonlight), but his sexuality remains as undefined as his agenda, and Felix’s awareness of it proves even more ambiguous.
Much of the credit for that belongs to Elordi, whose nuanced performance anticipates a career that will stretch far beyond “Euphoria.” His small head bobbling atop an Olympic swimmer’s torso, Elordi plays Felix like a little kid suffering — or not suffering — from “Big” syndrome. He wields the character’s wealth and beauty with the guilelessness of someone who just stepped into it yesterday, which makes it tempting to empathize with Felix even when he’s acting like a spoiled brat.
Elordi is further evidence of Fennell’s gift for casting, which she deploys with a savage wit that underlines her dark comic instincts. Richard E. Grant is a good bit of fun as Sir James Catton, a droll clod whose clenched teeth seem determined to keep the silver spoon from falling out of his mouth, while Rosamund Pike is an absolute riot as Felix’s mother, Elsbeth, a former It Girl who married into the family and blithely claims that Pulp wrote “Common People” about her.
Cool Amy by way of Downton Abbey, Elsbeth wants to come off as a humble sort who wears her good fortune as lightly as her chiffon robes, but she’s betrayed by an allergy to “ugliness” so fatal that you could probably kill her with a five o’clock shadow. People like Oliver are only endearing to the Elsbeths of the world for as long as they’re willing to bask in her generosity and/or reaffirm her beauty, which doesn’t bode well for Carey Mulligan’s “Poor Dear Pamela,” a fashionable but air-headed squatter who lacks the capacity to know when she’s not wanted, let alone the wiles to do something about it.
Needless to say, that isn’t a problem for Oliver, who tells every member of the Catton family exactly what they want to hear, including Felix’s bulimic sister, Venetia (a vulnerable but ruthless Allison Oliver). The only people he can’t seem to get on side are Saltburn’s caretaker (a skeptical Paul Rhys) and Felix’s spunky gay cousin (Archie Madekwe as the American-raised Farleigh Start), who’s half-Black and fully desperate for a sense of belonging the Catton brood will only lend him on a conditional basis. Money is everything and nothing at Saltburn, but all of the people there are clinging to an identity they can’t afford to live without; shame about Chekhov’s hedge maze in the backyard, which is freshly trimmed just in time for someone to lose themselves in the third act.
As in “Promising Young Woman,” Fennell’s self-conflicted characters are failed by a plot that can only think of obvious and/or inane things to do with them, which — as in “Promising Young Woman” — are made all the more frustrating in the context of a furiously candied pop confection whose most beautiful flourishes never seem to add up. Linus Sandgren’s neo-nostalgic 1:33 cinematography delivers a full serving of “one perfect summer” in every frame, and Fennell knows just where to put the camera in order to maximize Oliver’s muddled feelings of first love; the scene in which the film’s young cast sunbathes nude in a field of golden-brown grass might be the most idyllic moment of its kind since “Call Me by Your Name.”
“That’s a twist,” an impressed Venetia comments when Oliver strips off his skivvies, and by the middling standards of the other big reveals to come, I suppose it is. But all of that past’l girth and beauty is wasted in the service of a movie that shares the Cattons’ unwillingness to look under the surface of things (“out of sight, out of mind” might as well be emblazoned on the family crest). Once again, Fennell’s genius for creating isolated moments is on full display — the last shot of “Saltburn” knows that it’s an absolute doozy). Once again, that genius is diluted by a story that prioritizes indelible shocks over internal logic. And once again, Fennell has played to her weakness by writing a movie that hinges on an elaborate plan of some kind.
At a loss for how to explain its delicious sociopathy, “Saltburn” tends to fall back on a “people want what they can’t have” defense, which proves far less satisfying than any of the more prescriptive conclusions it might have drawn, and ultimately defangs the vampirism of Oliver’s agenda. That flimsy rationale struggles to support the weight of Fennell’s otherwise fully welcome decision to set this story in the mid-noughties, which she explicitly mines for its movie references (“Superbad,” “The Ring”) and music (Bloc Party, Arcade Fire’s “No Cars Go,” and a “Mr. Brightside” singalong highlight the movie’s Zemeckis-like approach to on-the-nose needle-drops), and overall patina of preppy chic, but only glances over for its social aspirations. If “Saltburn” is meant to be a commentary on the genesis of Instagram-era lifestyle voyeurism — of a world that spends all day looking through its most glamorous neighbors’ garden windows — that angle only comes into focus if you squint.
Maybe that’s the downside of casting an actor as brilliant and inscrutable as Barry Keoghan in the role of Oliver: Not only can he get by without a clear motive, but his singular performance would embarrass any of the simpler explanations that might be assigned to it. And so Oliver’s chameleonic nature has no choice but to resolve as an end unto itself — as a giddily violent refutation of the (very British) idea that class will remain an iron curtain in an online world where identity itself is so fungible. And yet, “Saltburn,” by doubling down on all of the same plusses and minuses that made Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” such a frustratingly uneven debut, is far more convincing proof that some tigers can’t change their stripes.
“Saltburn” premiered at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release it in select theaters on Friday, November 24.