Since Promising Young Woman was released back in 2020, I’ve had my eye on whatever Emerald Fennell’s next project would be. Promising Young Woman was an uncompromising and uncomfortable examination of the role of women in society and the way that men treat them. It’s a bold movie, one that earned her plenty of accolades and made me hope that her future films would be just as provocative. Now, I can say with certainty that Saltburn is just as provocative, if not more so.
If Promising Young Woman is about holding up a dark mirror to society, Saltburn is much more interested in depicting a raunchy summer vacation with very few inhibitions. It’s the kind of film that in lesser hands would come across as pure exploitation, but Fennell and her cast are able to elevate the material and turn it into something almost poetic and poignant. Key word, almost. While Saltburn has a lot of strengths, and I do mean a lot, it never coalesces into anything as powerful or as impactful as what Promising Young Woman accomplished.
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Director: Emerald Fennell
Release Date: November 22, 2023 (Theatrical)
Oliver (Barry Keoghan) is a new student at Oxford who isn’t able to fit in due to how socially awkward he is. Despite trying to make friends for months, he’s unable to do so until he helps out a wealthy student named Felix (Jacob Elordi). The two quickly become friends, with Oliver confiding in Felix about his troubled life at home and how he doesn’t want to go back there for summer vacation. Felix, being a pretty stand-up guy, offers Oliver a chance to stay with him and his family over the summer at his family estate, Saltburn. Upon arrival, Oliver quickly ingratiates himself with Felix’s family and spends the summer with them, though tensions slowly begin to rise thanks to outside issues, like how Felix’s cousin, Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), needs money for his mother and how Felix’s sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver), begins to take an interest in Oliver.
The film is shot wonderfully, gazing over the lavish Saltburn estate and showing that Fennell has an eye for cinematography. Even minor scenes are shot with a level of intimacy and care that gives you an insight into the character’s thoughts and actions. I think the real strength of the cinematography is how Fennell decides to use long takes to give the cast room to breathe. There’s a pivotal scene two-thirds of the way through the movie that is static and shows Oliver at his most vulnerable, but the emotional depth is only emphasized by how the camera never cuts away from him. Another scene is gutwrenching if only because of how dry it is and how the camera doesn’t turn away from the cast’s anguish. Sure, there are quick cuts used throughout the film, but when everything is laser-focused, Fennell controls your attention with ease.
And oh boy are you going to be focused on a lot of very… explicit scenes. I can’t say what they are, because they are definitely the highlights of the film and will leave you shocked, but rest assured that you won’t forget how Saltburn pushes the boundaries of what kind of sex can be shown in cinemas. Some of the scenes I was surprised they were able to get away with in a theatrical release and I’m almost certain that there’s an NC-17 version of the film that exists somewhere. For as captivating as these scenes are, and believe me, they are wonderful, they do ring somewhat hollow because they’re not built up and lack a meaningful emotional throughline.
Most of the character drama in the film feels somewhat surface-level outside of the core relationship between Oliver and Felix. The dynamic between the two of them is fine for the most part, if somewhat unspectacular, but Oliver’s interactions with the supporting cast leave a lot to be desired. You can feel all of this tension that’s present between characters like Oliver, Venetia, and Farleigh, but none of it ever comes out in the kind of grandiose way that you would expect. The catharsis should be in these intense sexual moments, it’s called a climax for a reason after all, but it feels like they’re missing the foreplay, if you catch my drift. It should be like a pressure cooker, but instead, Saltburn feels more like a gentle flame.
For a movie whose tagline is “We’re all about to lose our minds,” the film is less provocative than I think it believes it is and instead comes across as depicting shock value for shock value’s sake. I know that may not seem like much of a difference, but it’s a big indicator of why this film doesn’t hit me as hard as Promising Young Woman did. The intense focus on sex feels like a flavor meant to shock audiences and give the film an identity rather than say anything meaningful about it. With the content in Promising Young Woman, it felt like it was pushing boundaries and felt raw. While I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything like Saltburn, I can also say that I didn’t have any meaningful reaction to it.
I guess my indifference towards the film comes from how Saltburn opts to pace itself. The opening is very slow and meanders around, dragging its heels until we get to Saltburn itself. Once we are there, there’s still a general question about what the point of it all is. We get clues about it, which for the sake of spoilers I won’t go into, but the film still plays things close to the chest. Is it a romance? A psychological thriller? A horned-up, soft-core porn? The film plays coy with what its message is trying to be, but that’s less endearing and more frustrating as the film progresses.
Once Saltburn finally stops playing around and tells the audience what the point is, the film finally comes into focus. Granted, that revelation comes a little bit too late and requires a lot of leaps in logic to get there, but it leads to a powerful final scene that is probably the best thing about the movie. I can’t stress this enough, the final shot of Saltburn is probably my favorite ending of 2023, I just wish that the journey to get there was more satisfying. Maybe the film will be more satisfying on a second watch now that I know what the endgame of the film is, but that’s implying I want to watch it again. And maybe I will, but I’m certainly not in the proper mindset for it yet.
When Saltburn is good, it’s terrific. While I may not have been the biggest fan of Barry Keoghan’s performance as Oliver, it has less to do with it being a bad performance and more because I didn’t connect with it. Jacob Elordi is wonderful as Felix and exudes such a likable aura around him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he got a Best Supporting Actor nomination here and I would honestly prefer he be nominated for this film than for his take on Elvis Presley. Again, the cinematography, soundtrack, editing, all of it is wonderfully done and proves that Emerald Fennell isn’t a one-trick pony. It’s just that the film rings hollow in a few too many areas for me to give it a ringing endorsement.
Given how this is already a very jam-packed holiday season with a ton of excellent movies like Godzilla Minus One, The Holdovers, Maestro, and The Boy and the Heron, I think that Saltburn is going to be lost in the shuffle. It’s not really making a dent at the box office, but I think you can make the argument that Saltburn is going to be one of the most underrated movies of the year. It does a lot right and outside of some structural and narrative issues towards the end of the film, there’s nothing technically wrong with the film. I just couldn’t connect with it in the same way that others are and that’s unfortunate. This is a good movie, but it’s not for me, and it’s not going to be for everyone. However, if you can get into Saltburn’s world, then I’m sure you’ll love it.