“What is this movie about?” is the question I kept coming back to while watching “Saltburn.” In writer-director Emerald Fennell’s new movie, things happen, often inexplicably, as gorgeously shot and increasingly odious scenes lambasting England’s rich and grimy glide from one to the next and the humor gets darker and darker. Oh, and the performances are an absolute delight.
But what is it, actually? Reviews praised it as an extravagant eat-the-rich film, proving once again that we don’t really know what that means. It is true that “Saltburn” has affluent characters whose shallowness is comically grating and a character named Oliver (Barry Keoghan) on the outside of that bubble who is as fascinated with that world as he is ostracized from it.
Those are just details, though.
So when Oliver plunges into violence and self-satisfied depravity against the privileged, it’s hard to get the feeling that he is motivated by revenge or envy. Or that Fennell or the movie itself has a bone to pick with — which is it? — the exclusion of wealth in England? Capitalism? Rich people specifically, maybe?
When really what we have here is a movie about an unhinged young man who goes on a rampage against not what they have or who they are. Rather, as far as one could tell, it’s really about who he is not.
That’s an intriguing point that “Saltburn” is frustratingly incurious about. Instead, we get a pretty film about a smart young man who gets a whiff of the moneyed lifestyle after meeting Felix (Jacob Elordi) and his crew while attending Oxford University and viciously infiltrates their circle. He comes up with a plan to get invited to Felix’s home — er, castle — during school break.
From there, he wreaks gradual havoc. That’s not vindictive. That’s maniacal.
Think Matt Damon in 1999’s similarly homoerotic thriller, “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” who methodically permeates Jude Law’s indulgent life and turns it upside down. Not something like 2019’s “Ready or Not,” whose protagonist has every reason to defend her life against her homicidal and wealthy in-laws.
Oliver is functionally out of his mind and takes that out on a daft, self-absorbed family whose only faults are that they’re daft and self-absorbed. That’s nothing to wish their demise for. And due to spoilers, I’ll just say that the movie points vaguely to the issue of wealth disparity but doesn’t grasp the concept of what poverty and affluence look like in relation to each other.
This movie doesn’t focus on the haves and the have-nots. Rather, it’s the haves and the want mores. That’s a different conversation, one that points to each of their relationships with capitalism and wealth. There’s room for scrutiny there, but this movie doesn’t bother with it.
Part of the problem is the way we anticipate films like “Saltburn,” what we project onto them versus what they actually are. Our own worldviews versus what is presented to us on screen. This movie falls into some of that. But it’s also not particularly interesting in its own regard.
Removing the faux “eat-the-rich” element, “Saltburn” skates by on its absurd entertainment.
There is the black-tie requirement for dinner in the family dining room. A scene where he goes down on Felix’s sister (Alison Oliver) on the lawn in the middle of the night. The time when he orgasmically slurps up Felix’s dirty bathwater while the camera closely pans to his tongue as it descends into the tub.
Fennell seems to take pleasure out of revolting her audience and bringing us intimately inside a singularly grotesque story that both capitalism and desire perhaps had a hand in building. We’re rooted in Oliver’s perspective the entire time in “Saltburn,” which makes the character at least penetrable to the audience.
We see both his desire for Felix and all the gorgeous finery inside the mansion in equal measure. In turn, Fennell points us to the ripples in Felix’s abs and the luscious decor of the house and land around it.
There’s glee in that. The silly repartee among Felix’s relatives, including cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe, who’ll we get to in a bit), mother (Rosamund Pike) and dad (Richard E. Grant) only adds to that thrill.
For what it’s worth, Fennell gives us such great dialogue in “Saltburn,” but not an inspired story. Though that’s certainly fun to watch, particularly among a large theatrical audience that’s game for it, it leaves a lot to be desired. It’s far from the incredibly bold “Promising Young Woman,” her previous directorial effort.
That’s particularly true when you think more about the story and what it lacks. For example, Farleigh, Felix’s snobby, biracial gay relative, is deliriously jealous of Oliver when Oliver gains more access to the house and wins the superficial affection of Felix’s other family.
This is often folded into the whole tit-for-tat vibe that’s baked into the fabric of the story. But when Farleigh broaches Felix with genuine concerns about how easy it was for Oliver to rather seductively come into the family as opposed to his own position in it, it’s brushed off.
Though that dismissiveness feels true to Felix, it only amplifies questions of race in a story that aims to provoke thoughts around privilege. That becomes particularly egregious the more you learn about Oliver in the film. So often in largely white films like this, class becomes the default gateway to discussions of wealth when race is just as essential and further complicates that.
British-set films — and Britain in general — rarely attempt to engage in racial politics. There’s an opportunity to do that more deeply in “Saltburn,” but it doesn’t.
A silver lining, though, is that Fennell seemed to have recognized her own blind spot here and, according to an interview with Vogue, collaborated with Madekwe on how to more explicitly tackle this issue in the movie.
But it doesn’t come across very distinctly in the movie. Any efforts to depict Farleigh feeling the need to constantly perform among his white family is undercut by his more prominent braggadocio that he emits even in scenes without his family around. Who is he, really, inside this story? Collateral damage, apparently.
Still, if we’re talking about stories that actually confront issues, it’s hard not to wonder what “Saltburn” would have been like if Farleigh was the bitter character at the core of this story and not Oliver. Then we might have been on to something here.
‘Saltburn’ is in select theaters now and opens everywhere on Nov. 22.