Capsule Review: Saltburn (2023)

After subverting the rape-revenge genre in Promising Young Woman, which won the movie an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, writer-director Emerald Fennell returns with a new comedy thriller, Saltburn. One that is laced with pitch-black humour and psychosexual undertones best described as multi-genre crosses between The Talented Mr Ripley, Call Me by Your Name, Parasite and even Killers of the Flower Moon.

Fennell takes her time getting to the point of the titular large estate as the story first establishes the friendship between the shy and introverted freshman Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) and the rich, popular student Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) while studying at Oxford University. Oliver likes spending time with him, and one summer, he gets invited by Felix to join him at his family’s Saltburn estate in the remote English countryside.

From there, Oliver gets to know Felix’s parents, Sir James (Richard E. Grant) and Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), as well as his sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), Elspeth’s friend, Pamela (Carey Mulligan) and butler Duncan (Paul Rhys).

Fennell depicts the Cattons as a privileged, dysfunctional family where everyone seems to have peculiar personalities in each of them. For instance, Richard E. Grant’s Sir James is an eccentric patriarch of the family while Alison Oliver’s Venetia is the horny daughter with an eating disorder.

The colourful characterisation allows Fennell’s ensemble cast to stretch their acting prowesses, notably Alison Oliver’s star-making turn as Venetia. Let’s not forget Rosamund Pike, who nails the role of a haughty, icy queen-like mother Elspeth — easily one of her best performances to date post-Gone Girl era. Even Carey Mulligan’s extended cameo as Elspeth’s red-haired, needy friend deserves equal mention.

Fennell’s script is deliberate, detailing Oliver’s obsession — which turns out to be the movie’s recurring main theme — not just on Felix but also on his wealthy family. A nobody from a working-class family who becomes so fixated on blending in with the upper-class aristocrats (the Cattons) and their freewheeling, devil-may-care lifestyles. Let’s just say the obsession goes too far equivalent to a slow descent into madness, even though Fennell’s penchant for toying around audiences’ expectations can be a test of patience. I have to admit her self-indulgent direction tends to grow pretentious.

Somewhere in between, Saltburn contains some of the most controversial scenes ever seen this year. Remember the peach scene in Call Me by Your Name? Well, if you think that is bizarre, wait until you see the bathtub drain scene and the grave scene. Kudos go to Barry Keoghan, who gives his all as the sneakily manipulative Oliver Quick. It’s the kind of creepy character that he does best since his memorable turn in The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

Saltburn‘s 131-minute runtime does make me feel the overstretched length could have benefitted from tighter editing. Still, the eventual payoff, one of which is set to Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder on the Dancefloor” playing in the background proves Fennel has a unique flair for all things twisted.

Saltburn is currently streaming on Prime Video.