The Debauched ‘Saltburn’ Plays It Too Safe

It’s strange to walk away from a film that expels as many bodily fluids as Saltburn does and be left wanting more.

By most measures, Emerald Fennell’s second directorial feature after the Oscar-winning Promising Young Woman meets every requirement of “debauched.” The film is named after the family estate of the wealthy and wildly popular Oxford University student Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). Like everyone else, fellow student Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is utterly enamored with him: his good looks, his hot-cold nature, and his inherent goodness. After a chance encounter and favor, the two strike up an off-balance friendship that leads to Felix inviting Oliver to Saltburn for the summer. Oliver quickly falls into the Catton family’s world of sun-drenched excess and deeply ingratiates himself to meet their eccentricity. His efforts turn Saltburn and everyone in it upside down.

Oliver’s journey into Saltburn’s den of iniquity yields more than its fair share of outrageous moments. As the lede suggested, characters expel and exchange a not-insignificant amount of bodily fluids for reasons ranging from debased arousal to psychological decimation. Even those with the most hardened sensibilities will likely be stunned into a mental reboot by at least two memorable scenes. (People with more delicate constitutions should prepare for their jaws to stay open for the film’s entirety.) Just when it seems like Oliver and company have reached the bottom of their depravity, Fennell unearths a new level. There is a palpable, pulsating joy in guessing how far these characters will go to get what they want.

Barry Keoghan in ‘Saltburn’ (Courtesy: Amazon MGM Studios)

Therein lies a significant problem with Saltburn. While there is no denying that the film gets deliciously nasty, it can be hard to know why. Fennell keeps us from fully understanding her characters’ motivations for their behavior, beyond the fairly obvious love of chaos and the superficial. Oliver is the most critically opaque, which poses a problem since he is our window into this aristocratic hellscape. There are several reasons why Oliver would cling so tightly to Felix: sexual attraction, financial envy, improved social position, or family jealousy. However, Oliver’s words and actions are inconsistent and unhelpful in deciding which reason matters most. The lack of a clear purpose leaves the spaces between Oliver’s most debased activities feeling flaccid. Similar problems hamstring other characters, who make meals of Fennell’s barbed dialogue but feel like sketches of detached aristocrats.

Jacob Elordi in ‘Saltburn’ (Courtesy: Amazon MGM Studios)

Richer character work might’ve enhanced Saltburn’s send-up of generational wealth and privilege. Fennell has an interesting take on Hollywood’s recent “eat the rich” phenomenon: those who obsessively covet wealth can be as toxic as those born into it. Oliver and Felix are fascinating sides of the same coin, reflecting the other’s presumed traits based on their status. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t fully capitalize on the contrast because of how it cleaves to being mysterious. It sometimes yearns for more clarity into their relationship and what draws them to each other. The suggested answers – naivete, arousal, carelessness, genuine fondness – don’t feel in lockstep with the boundaries it pushes elsewhere.

Saltburn can leave one wanting more regarding its characters, but what lands on the screen is sumptuous. Fennell is fearless and artful in capturing Saltburn’s hedonistic excesses, prioritizing allure above all else with her camera. She experiments with shot composition and lighting to make the Cattons’ world appear irresistible. Fennell bathes Oliver and Felix in bright and hazy summer heat in Saltburn’s fields, insinuating a lustful intimacy neither can deal with. She also drenches them in the dirty blue and purple glow of house parties that hint at danger and carnal release. Even the film’s most viscerally disgusting moments have an off-kilter appeal in how Fennell frames them. They should repulse us, but looking away feels worse than what’s before us. The imagery is always striking and sensual, no matter the scene or circumstance. (The soundtrack enhances the visuals, with genius needle drops of Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Tomcraft.)

Rosamund Pike in ‘Saltburn’ (Courtesy: Amazon MGM Studios)

Reaching peak sensuality isn’t a hardship with a cast like the one Fennell assembles. Barry Keoghan brilliantly wears Oliver’s calculating nature and perversions, leveraging his awkward cadence to appear ahead and behind the curve. Although Oliver’s ambiguity is frustrating, Keoghan maximizes the opportunity, flipping expectations with a well-placed smirk or unexpectedly vulnerable stare. Jacob Elordi makes for a compelling object of obsession and foil for Oliver. Strange as it may sound, his performance evokes Princess Diana, demonstrating a sharp insight into his beauty’s power and authentic empathy that nefarious parties could easily exploit. As excellent as Keoghan and Elordi are, Rosamund Pike nearly snatches the film away as the droll, disaffected matriarch Elsbeth. She dines respectfully on the scenery, landing the most hilarious and cutting lines with a delicious camp sensibility.

Saltburn can be an eye-popping dissection of opulence and obsession when it reaches its most toxic conclusion. However, Emerald Fennell doesn’t keep up nasty energy and slightly undercuts it with a restrained approach to developing her characters. When she goes there, her audacity is admirable. After all, It isn’t every day we see what Oliver does with a tub of bathwater. Even with the bathwater, the film still plays it a bit too safe for the aftertaste to linger fully.

Saltburn will have a limited theatrical release in North American theaters on November 17th, and a wide release on November 24th. The film will have a full theatrical release in the UK on November 17th.

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