Here's a story: a poor young man finds himself, through a mix of luck and scheming, mixing among the rich, pretty young things in an exotic world. There are homoerotic undertones in that curious mixing. When that world starts fading, our antihero resorts to dangerous and evil methods to get his way. No, I am not talking about Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley. I am talking about Saltburn. A curious blending of The Talented Mr. Ripley and Call Me by Your Name, there is beautiful cinematography and beautiful people running around Saltburn. It is also far too long and not as clever as it thinks it is.
Seemingly meek Oxford scholarship student Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) finds himself admiring Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). Felix is a golden boy: endlessly wealthy, physically beautiful, the object of desire for everyone who meets him. Oliver longs for Felix's world. Whether Oliver longs for Felix himself is an open question. An act of kindness from Oliver to Felix begins a friendship between the two. Oliver soon finds himself in Felix's heady world, even if eyed suspiciously and with contempt by Felix's American cousin, Farleigh (Archie Madekwe). While Felix does eventually think Oliver is growing too obsessive with him, the death of Oliver's dad brings him back into his circle.
With the school term over, Felix invites Oliver to stay with him at the Catton family estate, Saltburn. Oliver appears uneasy amidst the lavishness and decadence of Saltburn. Felix's parents, Sir James (Richard E. Grant) and Lady Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) oversee a world of wealth and privilege, if a bit oblivious to things outside their world. Soon, Oliver becomes corrupted by Saltburn's decadence. Felix's sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) gets some erotic satisfaction from Oliver. Oliver observes Felix in an autoerotic exercise at the shared bathtub and he finds ecstasy by drinking Felix's draining bathwater (and one presumes, the leftover cum).
Soon, the darkness appears to take over Oliver. He does not shrink from taking advantage of poor relation Farleigh in various ways, but the family has an unexpected surprise for Oliver. The Cattons have decided to throw Oliver a lavish birthday party, but just prior to the big bash, Felix opts to surprise Oliver by driving him to his widowed mother's home. Oliver's house of cards begins to crumble when Felix finds the truth about Oliver Quick and the Quick family. Too late to cancel the party, Felix nevertheless breaks with Oliver once and for all. However, Oliver finds that death is his friend. The Cattons find themselves no match for a clever young man who ends up triumphantly dancing nude at his new estate, Saltburn.
Within a half hour into the two-hour-plus film, my mind floated to Tom Ripley, the character who always gets away with his crimes no matter what he does or how close he comes to capture. Saltburn brings us a central character who is driven by envy and lust both material and physical, one seemingly charming but who duplicitous, amoral but ultimately successful. I do not know if writer/director Emerald Fennell was deliberately trying to echo Highsmith in Saltburn. I do know that for me, once I pegged Oliver Quick as Tom Ripley's unofficial British protege, Saltburn became a very slow burn, waiting for the reveal.
It might have been a greater twist had Oliver appeared to become corrupted by the Catton's decadence and frivolity versus his open lust for them. As it was not a shock to me, I was not invested in Oliver's story. When, for example, Oliver finally arrives at Saltburn, he appears more bitter about the lavish world than awed by it. As such, I figured it would be only a matter of time before we saw Oliver take over this world. It took much longer than I think it should have, but we did get what I was expecting.
Granted, I was not expecting Oliver to dance fully and visibly naked at the end. Bless Keoghan for showing off an impressive body, one that rivals Elordi's own impressive physique despite a nine-inch height difference. Saltburn is somewhat obsessed with the physical beauty of its cast, at times needlessly having at least one scene where the virile young cast is au naturel al fresco. I also was not expecting Oliver to drink in Felix's bathwater, essentially have sex with the ground at Felix's grave or his shadowy Farleigh fondling.
As a side note, Oliver simultaneously stimulating and threating Farleigh reminded me of when The Rocky Horror Picture Show's Dr. Frank-N-Furter seduced Brad. Again, I do not know if that was Fennell's intention. It is for me, the result.
One issue that Saltburn has is its length. Running close to two hours and fifteen minutes, I was bored by Hour One. I cannot shake the feeling that the first half hour, where the Oliver/Felix relationship grows, falters and returns, could not have been cut down by fifteen minutes if not more. Same goes for the character of Palema (Carey Mulligan), Lady Elspeth's BFF who seemed to be there to give Mulligan a reason for being there.
Saltburn is at times also obsessed with its symbolism which ended up being heavy-handed, even slightly laughable. The chief valet Duncan (Paul Rhys) informs Oliver, "Lost of people get lost in Saltburn", which is obvious in its double meaning. Oliver seeing multiple versions of himself as his lies are exposed, his wearing of horns at his birthday party, or Felix wearing wings while having sex under a statue of a bull also seemed to push the symbolism to almost cartoonish levels.
As Felix's body is being carried off, Duncan asks for permission to draw the curtains. Doing so drowns the dining room in blood red. I think I rolled my eyes at Fennell's overt manner.
The performances themselves are hit-and-miss. I think Barry Keoghan did quite well as Oliver, even if his villainy was obvious. Perhaps that is what makes it a good performance: that he starts as seemingly meek and ends with a nude celebration of wealth. Madekwe's Farleigh was close to Keoghan for the most part as the arrogant but financially dependent American cousin. It wasn't until Farleigh was essentially framed for crimes he did not commit that his performance seemed more on the comic side.
Granted, Saltburn is, I'm told, a black comedy. I did not find it so but saying that it isn't is not a hill I'm going to die on. The comic manner may be from Pike and Grant's performances, which seemed far too broad and exaggerated to be thought of as real.
Elordi is pretty but also slight as Felix, a slightly more principled Dickie Greenleaf. I never believed that Elordi was either wholly decadent or wholly decent. He was just there. Yes, very pretty, but pretty empty.
If there is one quality that Saltburn has, it is in Linus Sandgren's cinematography. The film is visually arresting, at times almost breathtaking. The use of light and shadow, the various colors and lavishness of its look do work well in the film.
It is unfortunate that both Keoghan's performance and the cinematography are simply not enough for me to recommend Saltburn. Had the film been shorter and less heavy-handed with its symbolism, I would have thought better of it.