Poor kid meets rich boy. Poor kid falls in love with rich boy. Poor kid does everything he can to be accepted by rich boy’s family. That’s the most simplistic take on Emerald Fennell‘s film Saltburn. Erotic, queer, thorny, and darkly humorous, Saltburn is a downright wicked tale told at the intersection of a class divide and what happens when desire builds in it.
At the film’s center is Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), a college freshman struggling to find his place at Oxford University. On scholarship and friendless, he struggles to find a path to stay on or people to hold on to. Still, Felix Catton catches his eye. The popular student on campus and the man every woman wants to sleep with, every guy wants to be Felix’s friend, and when Oliver helps the rich boy out, the two become close. Drawn into the world of the charming and aristocratic Felix, Oliver begins to change, drinking more, wearing different clothes, and morphing into a new version of himself. Across a class divide, the two grow closer, and Felix invites Oliver to the titular Saltburn, his eccentric family’s sprawling estate, for a summer.
Barry Keoghan is a slow-moving train, and you’re tied to his tracks. Narratively, Fennell builds Oliver as a character in waves. Each new piece of information adds something new while eroding things you knew previously. A slow-burning escalation, Koeghan’s depth as an actor is on full display. As Oliver, Keoghan is able to switch his personality to the needs of others. Oliver is empty, filled up by the people around him, becoming who they need him to be over and over and somehow never overflowing.
Keoghan is nervous, small, and trying his best to earn a spot in Felix’s life. He seeks acceptance above all else and yet, in that tender quest to be a part of Felix’s eccentric and near-heartless rich family, he is observing everything, gaining knowledge to ensure he doesn’t lose his place. Keoghan is in one film, neurotic, sullen, lonely, erotic, manic, and maniacal, and quantifying the amount of talent that is needed to execute this is unmatched.
The truth is that Saltburn is best encountered with no prior information. You should be as in the dark as the characters stuck in this slow-moving erosion of trust and just as confused when the needles drop. Emerald Fennell’s understanding of tension is on full display as she pulls the tension tighter and tighter across every character. Taking full advantage of the intimacy that builds between two people both in terms of sex and in terms of friendship, Saltburn is a masterclass in manipulation not just by the characters but by Fennell who emotionally exploits you at every turn.
While the tonal switch of Saltburn is strong, it’s not out of pace, nor does it make the two halves of the film feel different. This film has it’s twists but none are sharp, instead lulling you into a semblance of security and understanding. To say the floor falls out from under you would be a disservice to the care and attention that Fennell has put into the path she’s set the characters on. Fennell winds up each and every character before placing them down on a well-charted course. Slowness, in this case, is an art, making the film’s final act have an immense impact.
Saltburn is stunning and hands-down Emerald Fennell’s best and most painstakingly precise work that doesn’t sacrifice emotion and intimacy for twisting pay-off. Instead, the emotional build-up is what makes each and every reveal absolutely stellar.
Saltburn screened as a part of the Fantastic Fest 2023 program and is in theaters November 17, 2023.
Saltburn is stunning and hands-down Emerald Fennell’s best and most painstakingly precise work that doesn’t sacrifice emotion and intimacy for twisting pay-off. Instead, the emotional build up is what makes each and every reveal absolutely stellar.