I love a good “Eat the Rich”-type story, mostly because our society is so well and truly fucked that we’re never going to run out of the undeserving wealthy who inspire such tales. Rather than make the systemic changes necessary to narrow the wage gap, improve public welfare, and penalize fiscal criminals, we as the unwashed masses have to settle for fantasy wish fulfilment to prevent another French Revolution. It’s infuriating at times, but it’s all we’ve got, and when done properly, it can be a lot of fun.
When it’s done wrong, however, like in Emerald Fennell’s latest, Saltburn, it can feel downright insulting. Coming off her Oscar win for Promising Young Woman, where she disingenuously accepted by saying she had no idea it would happen despite a near-sweep of writing prizes during that Awards Season, she returns with her sophomore effort, which has a lot of the same problems as her debut. The dialogue thinks it’s far more clever than it is, the obvious resolutions are couched in “twists” that everyone sees coming, some truly debauched moments are thrown in purely for the sake of shock value without actually saying anything, there’s a weird over-reliance on terrible pop music from the early-to-mid aughts, and the messaging is delivered in a completely patronizing manner befitting someone who attempts to speak for the common person despite never walking in our shoes.
Set in 2006, the plot centers on Oliver Quick, played extremely well by Barry Keoghan despite him being far too old for the role (he’s 31 playing 18). He’s starting his first term at Oxford as an English student on scholarship, where he’s instantly mocked by those who got in on money and influence alone, chiefly Farleigh Start (Archie Madekwe), who for some reason speaks with an American accent, having been raised in New York, even though the actor is English and his character is related to a blue blood English family. Seriously, why not just make him British? What could possibly be different about Archie Madekwe that would make someone want to depict them as not properly British?
Anyway, Oliver makes friends with a math student named Michael Gavey (Ewan Mitchell) basically by default, as no one seems to like him on his *checks notes* first day at college, where anyone who’s anyone knows that everyone already comes in with pre-existing relationships and cliques. Gavey is deliberately socially awkward and unpleasant, loudly demanding that Oliver allow him to show off his multiplication skills by giving him any two random numbers to solve. This is meant to establish some sort of jealousy/ambition to join the “cool kids” for Oliver, but it’s just shortsighted ignorance and one-note characterization. Seriously, Gavey looks and acts like the annoying glasses kid from The Polar Express if he grew up but still had that nightmare fuel Uncanny Valley mo-cap sheen on him.
Towards the end of the spring (yes, we basically jump eight months in eight minutes), Oliver comes across one of the most elite students (and Farleigh’s cousin), Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi, just seen a couple of weeks ago in Priscilla, and I think his tall stature, along with Madekwe, being that they’re both 6'5″, is used in similar fashion to make Keoghan appear younger, as he’s only 5'8″), stranded on the side of the road with a flat bike tire. Oliver offers his own bicycle, an act of kindness that leads to Felix taking him under his wing as a new friend, bringing him into his posh circle, despite all his other friends and relations scoffing at the idea. Farleigh in particular is against this, taking advantage of any opportunity that presents itself to try and make Oliver look like a poor whelp. Still, Oliver becomes closer and closer with Felix, letting him in on his family trauma, about his father dying in a drunken accident and his mother being a heroin addict. His studies were his only escape from his home life, and the scholarship to Oxford is his ticket to anything resembling a better future. When he admits that he doesn’t want to go home after the year is over, Felix invites Oliver to stay the summer with him and his family at the titular palatial estate.
Now, anyone who’s ever seen a movie before knows that Oliver is so full of shit his eyes are brown. It’s just a matter of time before his lies are revealed, and a matter of degrees to how much damage he’s going to do now that he’s insinuated himself into such a high class situation. More specifically, if you’ve ever seen The Talented Mr. Ripley, you’re basically screaming, “FUCK OFF!” at the screen, because this is a straight ripoff, only without the boat. You’ll be doing it again when you see the Shining-esque hedge maze that plays host to a good deal of the climax.
But for the sake of ceremony, we must press on and pretend to be impressed, right? Oliver arrives at Saltburn earlier than expected, surprising the lead butler, Duncan (Paul Rhys), who gently scolds him for a violation of protocol. Felix is already there, however, and gives Oliver the grand tour, including various objets d’art and two grand bedrooms with a shared bath for them. He’s also introduced to Felix’s family. There’s eternally optimistic father Sir James Catton (Richard E. Grant), oblivious mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), and slutty sister Venetia (Alison Oliver in her feature debut). Aside from them we have Farleigh on hand to be a constant antagonist, and the hard-living “Poor Dear” Pamela (Carey Mulligan) who’s basically just there to say odd things and look like she’s hungover from a particularly good rave.
Oliver enjoys his time living with this festering boil of a family, with only Felix demonstrating anything resembling an ounce of humanity. He finds it silly that the family dresses in black tie evening wear for dinner and observes all these stupid traditions that do nothing but flaunt their wealth, and he always treats Oliver like a younger brother. Meanwhile, Oliver is depicted as playing his part flawlessly (even though anyone with eyes can see he’s not), appearing meek and mousey in public during the day, but also sowing seeds of doubt with everyone, trying to turn them against one another like a bad Survivor contestant, and at night he takes on a much more sinister role, gaining favor with Venetia and Farleigh essentially through low-key sexual domination. The amount of bodily fluid that is shared between the four young leads is staggering, but mostly because it’s just gross and gratuitous.
There has rarely been a wolf in sheep’s clothing as obvious as Oliver, yet Fennell insists that we treat it like a mystery. Venetia hints that Oliver is just the latest “toy” that Felix brings home to play with in a possessive manner, but that thread goes absolutely nowhere. A painfully spotlighted prop that depicts the family as puppets in a children’s wind-up is so on the nose that I’m embarrassed on behalf of the concept of foreshadowing. For a so-called thriller, there’s literally nothing thrilling about any of this because we’ve all seen it before. By the time Oliver’s lie is discovered, it’s not so much a shocking reveal as it is a sigh of relief for the audience that we’re finally getting to the end of this nonsense.
Because sadly, this is what a privileged person like Emerald Fennell (herself an Oxford grad and the daughter of celebrity jewelry designer Theo Fennell) thinks counts for social commentary. Just like with Promising Young Woman, snobbery counts as cleverness, people in tuxedos performing a karaoke version of Flo Rida’s “Low” or “Rent” by the Pet Shop Boys is considered quaint character-building (still better than using the Paris Hilton garbage as a rom-com trope last time out), and the simple acknowledgement of an out-of-touch character like Elspeth is her equivalent of the Steve Buscemi meme saying, “How do you do, fellow plebes?” It’s clear she cared more about using a 4:3 aspect ratio as a metaphor for being “boxed in” without anyone ever actually feeling such an emotion and blinding the viewer with overly ornate title fonts in bright technicolor lettering than actually crafting a believable narrative or characters with more than one dimension. Even when we do get some legitimately funny exchanges between the players, the audience’s laughter is far more derisive than mirthful.
That’s because the one plus this movie has is the quality of the cast’s performance. As previously stated, despite being too old for the role, Barry Keoghan leans into the madness of every scene, playing it for all it’s worth. For some this may be surprising, but for me as a fan it’s just another example of how fine an actor he is. Also, he’s going to be playing the Joker soon enough, so what better way to preview audiences to his ability to be an agent of chaos? Similarly, Pike is delightfully over-the-top as Elspeth, turning on a dime to believe whatever rumor is presented to her in a given moment and overcompensating with what she believes to be proper etiquette. Mulligan isn’t in the film for long, but she elicits some solid giggles from her wardrobe and mannerisms alone. Elordi, who I noted did a horrible Elvis Presley impersonation in Priscilla, is very much on point here as the one genuinely good member of his family, doing his best to live a normal life in spite of his status, even though his nice demeanor spills over into uncharacteristic naïveté by the end. And in all seriousness, my favorite of the bunch is Madekwe, because his is the only character written honestly. He’s an irredeemable piece of shit, but he’s the only one you’ll believe when he tells Oliver that this world of wealth and never-ending parties is not for him, and that no matter how many times Farleigh might fuck up, he’ll always be invited back because he was born into this, whereas Oliver is an interloper. I earned my way into a private university (but no scholarships, sadly), and I’ll be paying for it the rest of my life. During my time, I met a ton of rich kids. Most were like Felix, but there were quite a few Farleighs as well, so I was glad for the dichotomy of the portrayals.
Because while Emerald Fennell wants to think she’s being cheeky and ribald and racy, she’s only barely covering up her own disdain for the lower classes. Just like the last film, where she dealt with a serious and complex subject in mind-numbingly stupid absolutes for the sake of a revenge fantasy, the oh so elaborate twist here is that riches should be reserved for the rich, because only they know how to handle the lifestyle. Anyone who thinks they “work” for it (as revealed by Oliver in aged-up form in the present day) is just trying to supplant those who are entitled to it, and even if they get it, all they’ll do is bask in it like any other idle oligarch. The fact that she makes that statement while literally stealing from much better films is more of an indictment of privilege than anything going on in the story.
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