Sometimes going into a movie or screener knowing as little as possible is the right way to go. No preconceived notions, therefore no expectations. This feat might seem nearly impossible with how prevalent spoilers and promotional material are nowadays. However, if possible, doing so allows for a completely different experience and interaction with the material on screen. That was how I went into Saltburn, ultimately knowing as little as possible. I knew it was a psychological thriller and possibly very gay. That was the extent of my knowledge about the film, so what I received was so much more crazy and enjoyable than I even imagined.
Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, who also wrote and directed Promising Young Woman, Saltburn stars Barry Keoghan and Jacob Elordi as the central characters of this wildly addictive and devilishly delightful film. Joining the two of them are Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, Archie Madekwe, and Carey Mulligan. This film isn’t for the faint of heart and is definitely one of the hardest R-rated films I’ve seen in theaters, this is a warning you should have before you go and see the film or even continue onto the rest of the review. So if you’re still reading and want to know more about Saltburn, we have a lot to talk about.
[Warning: spoilers and impressions from Saltburn are below!]
Saltburn dances on the line between love and obsession
Oliver Quick (Keoghan) is a scholarship student at Oxford University in 2006, a fact that the rich students there never let him forget. The division between the Haves and Have Nots is ever present in Saltburn, with the film’s premise riding on that fact from start to finish. Oliver lives among the looked-over outcasts at Oxford, but there’s a longing in his eyes for the world of lavish parties and opportunities that come with status and fortune. It’s from this longing that his life crashes into that of Felix (Elordi), one of the aforementioned rich students.
Oliver and Felix’s worlds cannot be any more different from each other if they tried. The former is at Oxford for a specific reason, to gain knowledge and experience, ultimately making a life and name for himself. Felix on the other hand lives a life of partying and splendor, hardly noticing people like Oliver. That is, until the universe forces the two together, thanks to a flat bike tire.
Having saved Felix’s university career by lending him a bike, Oliver is brought into the world of money, however, he isn’t received warmly by all. Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), Felix’s American-sounding cousin who also attends Oxford, is the first to dislike Oliver’s addition to the group, leading others to turn against him as well. So begins Oliver’s process of proving himself to this group, which eventually leads him to Felix’s family estate, Saltburn.
While moments of Oliver’s infatuation for Felix are peppered in the opening sequences, the desire becomes ever apparent at Saltburn, an estate that is removed from people and reality. There, passion takes a turn towards obsession and mental illness runs rampant. Vices are consumed in excess and no one questions the oddities of those who pay the bills. It’s here at Saltburn that Oliver descends into madness, with Felix at the center of his obsession. There are no lengths to which he’ll go to stay in Felix’s good graces. As a result, Oliver’s weaved webs become more complicated, and the lines between reality and murderous desire blend. Just what extent will someone go, especially when they’re desperate to remain at the top of the social food chain? That concept is at the core of Saltburn, creating one of the craziest narratives I’ve ever seen on screen.
The positives and negatives of Saltburn
Having no preconceived ideas of what this movie was about, I walked into Saltburn not knowing what to expect. What I witnessed felt like a work of art, although a very fucked up and disturbing masterpiece. The story of Saltburn is wild, with so many twists and turns that I was thoroughly shocked by how it ended. I didn’t see it coming and from the reaction within my theater, it didn’t seem like anyone else did either. There were parts that made everyone gasp, cringe, and holler with excitement or surprise, which made the experience even more special.
I haven’t been in a movie that caused such reactions in the entire theater in years. In fact, it may have been a Paranormal Activity film from a decade ago. That’s how long it’s been since I’ve had a joint experience with each and every audience member, and there was something intoxicating about that. It made the film even more enjoyable than it already it. And don’t worry, it’s already incredibly enjoyable.
The film is funny and the writing is crisp and witty. However, it’s not just a normal type of humor, the film is dark. Like super dark. So when you’re laughing at a gag, you feel just a tad guilty or bad, because the larger situation isn’t funny, but what’s happening in the scene definitely is. Keep that thought in mind when you’re in the dining room scene with the closed red curtains. It’s unbelievably dark and yet I couldn’t stop laughing, tears streaming down my face.
Barry Keoghan is exceptional as Oliver, full stop. I always knew that Keoghan was a fantastic actor, but wow, his role in this film is next level. Saltburn begins by making Oliver likable, bringing audiences into his world, and enveloping them in his narrative. Then when people start to love him, they swing perspective and show just how vile and wicked he can be. There are moments that took my breath away because they were so obscene or awkward, but those scenes also gave Keoghan so much material to work with. I was in awe of the masterclass in acting that he provides in Saltburn.
Rosamund Pike’s Lady Elsbeth Catton was also haunting, as the odd-as-hell mother to Felix. She’s the epitome of a rich socialite who is so embroiled in the role she’s supposed to play. However, there are cracks in her politeness, which she feels she’s earned due to the money in her bank account. The facade of Saltburn is as weak as it is strong, and it’s led by Lady Elsbeth and her husband Sir James (Richard E. Grant), both of which crumble the longer the film goes on. While Grant is strong in the role, at times he’s outshined by the acting of Pike and others in the film.
While I loved this film a lot, there are some scenes that are so shocking that it felt like they were added in just for the ick factor. There are two scenes that come to mind instantaneously that feel almost too extreme or necessary for the film. I think there were other ways to get the message across. It’s also these two scenes, plus perhaps a few more that aren’t nearly so gross, that make it strictly for adults. This is not a film I would watch around a child or even talk about. But also the obscene parts add to the overall message of rich culture and the obsession some go to obtain any kind of status.
Final thoughts on Saltburn
Overall, I loved Saltburn and cannot wait to see it again. It’s not a feel-good film in the slightest, but it is one that leaves you thinking long after the credits roll. A few days after my screening I am still thinking about it and the longer away from it, the more I like it. It’s provocative and thought-provoking, with a fantastic performance from Barry Keoghan. So if you’re looking for a film that has more twists and turns than a roller coaster, Saltburn should be at the top of your list.
My rating for this film:
Saltburn is currently in theaters. Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord if you plan on checking out this film!