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Movie Review: 'Saltburn' is a Nasty Little Magic Trick

Saltburn delivers twisted thrills as it misdirects and mystifies with unexpected nastiness.

By Sean PatrickPublished 3 months ago 5 min read

Saltburn (2023)

Directed by Emerald Fennell

Written by Emerald Fennell

Starring Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Archie Madekwe

Release Date November 17th, 2023

Published November 27th, 2023

Saltburn stars Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick, an outcast at Cambridge University. Oliver is a scholarship kid from a middle-class family. He's a little awkward, a little shy, and he doesn't make friends easily. When Oliver meets Felix Carlton it's quite clear that Oliver sees Felix in a more than friendly fashion. He's practically falling all over himself to catch a glimpse of Felix and that makes sense, Felix is a young God. As captured by director Emerald Fennell, Jacob Elordi's Felix is among the most attractive human beings on the planet.

Felix will also prove to be incredibly kind as when Oliver offers to help him with a broken bike wheel, Felix adopts the outcast as a friend and brings him into his popular Cambridge friend group. When Oliver proves to be a loyal and devoted friend, Felix returns the favor by inviting him to parties and introducing him to others. Eventually, when the holidays arrive and Oliver has nowhere to go home to, Felix invites him to Saltburn, the name of Felix's family property, a sprawling mansion in the English countryside.

Oliver even gets the bedroom next door to Felix, connected by a shared bathroom. It's more than Oliver could dream of, though Felix still seems innocently unaware that Oliver has feelings for him that go beyond friendship. One person who does appear to be on to Oliver's romantic obsession is Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), Felix's long time best friend and a close friend of the Carlton family. Farleigh delights in needling Oliver, even as Archie seems to be holding more than friendly feelings as well. At the very least, both of these two young men exhibit a fluid sexuality.

Slowly but surely, Oliver weasels his way into the good graces of the Carlton family, removing obstacles like Farleigh, and earning the trust of Felix's parents, Lady Elspeth Carlton (Rosamund Pike) and Sir James Carlton (Richard E. Grant). If you haven't caught on that this is all part of a master plan hatched by Felix to break into a rich family, then you aren't paying very close attention. For all of Oliver's awkwardness and creepiness, he's not the wilting violet that he would lead you to believe. And, as Saltburn careens toward its unexpected ending, Oliver's duplicitousness comes to the fore in nasty, bitter fashion.

Saltburn is a condemnation of the idle rich, those of so much unchecked privilege that they can't keep track of reality anymore. At a certain point, you can become so rich that any problems are unthinkable and there is simply nothing that money and connections cannot fix. Well, there is one thing that money cannot fix but I won't say any more than. The final act of Saltburn reveals the limits unchecked riches in a vile and despicable way that is also wildly audacious and entertaining. Crazy stuff comes to the fore in the third act of Saltburn as the film takes big wild swings to a highly unpredictable ending.

I've been debating over the need for spoilers, and I have decided to avoid them here. Perhaps in another article I will go into the nastiness at the core of Saltburn. For now, I will only say that Emerald Fennell fearlessly plumbs the depths of avarice to create a bleak comedy that perhaps Pier Paolo Pasolini might appreciate. There are some seriously gross and shocking images in Saltburn and they all serve to underline Fennell's larger themes about unchecked privilege, jealousy, and sexual obsession. Saltburn is a wildly horny movie and there is nothing wrong with that except that the sex in Saltburn is rarely ever satisfying. Rather, the sex of Saltburn is built out of a desire for power and control, whether or not any sexual pleasure is derived is beside the point.

Barry Keoghan is a fascinating and unpredictable actor. Keoghan's performances are always so remarkably natural, innate. His work is full bodied, and you cannot tell where the character stops and the actor begins. In Saltburn Keoghan is slightly more restrained than in his memorable performances in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Banshees of Inisherin, or The Green Knight. This is due mostly to being the lead character which requires him to be at least a bit likable, someone we want to follow for the length of a feature film. That said, part of the arc of Oliver is fooling us and his newfound family. Once the mask slips and the sexual and power fantasies begin to bleed into real life, it becomes more familiar to Keoghan's quite brilliant work from the recent past.

I adore Saltburn. It's a nasty bit of business in the same way Fennell's Promising Young Woman was a darkly hilarious but entirely nasty piece of work. Fennell's style is all sharp edges poking and piercing your skin, making you uncomfortable while also inviting you to relish in the preponderance of beauty on display. Whether it is the ethereal beauty of Jacob Elordi's Felix or the beauty of the Saltburn estate, an enviable mansion that anyone would likely appreciate owning, there is beauty all around in Saltburn. But much like a great magic trick, while we're looking one way, the movie is fooling us another way, cleverly misdirecting Oliver's machinations while we bask in the beauty of Saltburn. It's a wildly clever trick that Emerald Fennell pulls off with panache.

Find my archive of more than 20 years and nearly 2000 movie reviews at Find my modern review archive on my Vocal Profile, linked here. Follow me on Twitter at PodcastSean. Follow the archive blog on Twitter at SeanattheMovies. Listen to me talk about movies on the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast. If you have enjoyed what you have read, consider subscribing to my writing on Vocal. If you'd like to support my writing, you can do so by making a monthly pledge or by leaving a one time tip. Thanks!


About the Creator

Sean Patrick

Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast I am a voting member of the Critics Choice Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.

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  • Rachel Robbins3 months ago

    I loved Promising Young Women, so will definitely check this out.

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