Movie Review: ‘Saltburn’ | Moviefone

Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick in 'Saltburn.'

(Center) Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick in ‘Saltburn.’ Photo: Amazon MGM Studios. Amazon MGM Studios.

Opening in theaters everywhere on November 22nd is Emerald Fennell’s ‘Saltburn,’ starring Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, and Carey Mulligan.

Initial Thoughts

After making a striking feature debut in 2020 with ‘Promising Young Woman,’ a bracing if sometimes heavy-handed stew of revenge thriller, psychological drama, black comedy, and feminist messaging, writer-director Emerald Fennell returns with ‘Saltburn.’ Like her first, ‘Saltburn’ is a hybrid of several genres, including satire, mystery, erotic thriller, and class-based drama. While it may not offer anything substantially new beyond its gorgeous visuals and pulsing rhythms, it will lock you into its spell thanks to its sharp tone and a sumptuous cast, with Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, and Carey Mulligan all at the top of their game.

Story and Direction

Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick and Archie Madekwe as Farleigh in 'Saltburn.'

(L to R) Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick and Archie Madekwe as Farleigh in ‘Saltburn.’ Photo: Amazon MGM Studios. Amazon MGM Studios.

As ‘Saltburn’ begins, we meet Oliver Quick (Keoghan), a lonely, awkward, and clearly fashion-deficient new student at Oxford who yearns to somehow integrate himself with the cool kids, and become friends – and perhaps more – with their leader, the effortlessly charismatic, beautiful, and privileged Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). Circumstances provide Oliver with just that opportunity, and soon he and Felix do indeed become friends – despite the misgivings of fellow student and Felix’s cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe).

Seemingly genuinely empathetic toward Oliver and the tragic family life he shares, Felix invites the young man to spend the summer with him and his family at their palatial estate, Saltburn. Once there, Oliver meets Felix’s imperious yet insipid mother Elspeth (Pike), who runs the household with an iron fist yet revels in memories of her days as a model and A-lister. Also there is Felix’s permanently distracted, one-sandwich-short-a-picnic father James (Grant), his sexually available yet troubled sister Venetia (Oliver), Farleigh, and a dissolute family friend known as Poor Dear Pamela (Carey Mulligan).

The brooding, maze-like house (complete with massive hedge maze out back), its sinister head of staff Duncan (Paul Rhys), the ever-present servants, and the play of light and shadow throughout Saltburn’s mahogany-walled corridors provide a classic archetype of the British country estate, almost always with a secret or five hidden within its overbearing walls. Fennell sets up a somewhat standard class conflict, with the Cattons – who never want for anything but are all damaged and oblivious in their own ways – eager to put a little charge into their own semi-vacant lives by bestowing luxury and decadence upon Oliver. Yet they never realize how condescending and dismissive they are (“She’d do anything for attention,” sniffs Elspeth upon learning of a friend’s suicide), and even the kind-hearted Felix can turn on a dime from compassionate to selfish.

Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick in 'Saltburn.'

Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick in ‘Saltburn.’ Photo: Amazon MGM Studios. Amazon MGM Studios.

Yet, as one might suspect fairly early on, things aren’t quite what they seem at Saltburn, and the story takes some twists and turns in its second half that are best left undiscussed here. With a bacchanalian birthday party for Oliver at the center of the action, events take a darker turn that may be somewhat predictable from the start – think ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ and another Keoghan starrer, ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ — but are nonetheless compelling to watch thanks to Fennell’s expert direction and her brilliant cast.

The third act of ‘Saltburn’ is where Fennell might lose some viewers, as certain reveals are telegraphed pretty clearly, a few plot points stretch credibility, and most importantly, the movie struggles with its point of view. While ‘Saltburn’ may for most of its running time seem to be a scathing indictment of lifestyles of the rich and not-really-famous, its concluding scenes are far more ambivalent about who we’re empathizing with.

Related Article: Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi Talk director Sofia Coppola’s ‘Priscilla’

A Cast on Fire

Jacob Elordi as Felix Catton in 'Saltburn.'

(L to R) Jacob Elordi as Felix Catton in ‘Saltburn.’ Photo: Amazon MGM Studios. Amazon MGM Studios.

The casting for ‘Saltburn’ is superb up and down the board, starting with lead actor Barry Keoghan. The Irish actor is known for his breakout role in ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer,’ as well as his Oscar-nominated turn in ‘The Banshees of Inisherin,’ his role as Druig in Marvel’s ‘Eternals,’ and his eerie cameo as the Joker in ‘The Batman.’

In his first major lead, Keoghan is nothing short of riveting. His Oliver Quick is enigmatic, unsettling, and off-putting in an amorphous way, and Keoghan – who takes several bold, big swings throughout the film – keeps the audience off balance for most of the movie. Even when you have his number, the actor is so magnetic to watch that you don’t take your eyes off him.

Equally fantastic is Rosamund Pike, who continues the red-hot career streak that started in 2014 with ‘Gone Girl,’ and has encompassed films like ‘Hostiles’ and ‘I Care a Lot.’ Her Elspeth is perfectly repulsive yet hilarious, spewing out inappropriate opinions no one asked for (“I have a complete and utter horror of ugliness ever since I was very young”), vain enough to think that she singlehandedly inspired an entire British music scene, and making sure that lunch is served on time even in the wake of tragedy. Elspeth is a monster, and Pike plays her with an exquisite, complete lack of self-awareness.

Beyond Keoghan and Pike, Jacob Elordi’s Felix continues the Australian actor’s terrific year after his outstanding work as Elvis Presley in ‘Priscilla,’ both performances fueled by his physical presence and formidable good looks but utterly different in their emotional tone. Richard E. Grant is reliably amusing as always, and ‘Promising Young Woman’ star Carey Mulligan has a brief, darkly hilarious turn as Poor Dear Pamela, an utterly lost soul who manages to maintain her own distinct fashion sense.

Production Design, Editing and Music

'Saltburn' opens in theaters on November 22nd.

‘Saltburn’ opens in theaters on November 22nd. Photo: Amazon MGM Studios. Amazon MGM Studios.

‘Saltburn’ is a gorgeous film, from the beautiful young bodies on display both at Oxford and the Catton family home to the latter itself, an ostentatious, labyrinthine monster of a house that can blaze with sensual color or plunge into claustrophobic shadows within the space of one vast room.

There is a hedge maze that can put that of the Overlook Hotel to shame, sprawling fields and lawns where one might stumble across a nude sunbather, and other surprises all brought to vivid life by production designer Suzie Davies and cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who make ‘Saltburn’ into a decadent visual meal. They are aided and abetted by costume designer Sophie Canale, whose work here ranges from Oliver’s initially drab study hall duds to Elspeth’s shimmering, slinky dresses and Venetia’s seductive see-through nightwear.

All this is tied together and seamlessly paraded before the viewer’s eyes by the sure hand of editor Victoria Boydell, who works with Fennell to give Saltburn both a languid, lazy pace of life in some scenes and an urgent, throbbing rhythm in others, especially the centerpiece of Oliver’s birthday party.

The film’s music is key as well, with Anthony Willis’ sultry score pulsating along to the same rhythms as the film and highlighting the story’s complex psychological and sexual dynamics. Complementing Willis’ work is a series of tight needle drops from the mid-2000s (in which the film is set), including cuts from Bloc Party, MGMT, the Killers, and for the jaw-dropping final scene, Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder on the Dancefloor.”

Is ’Saltburn’ An Oscar Contender?

Rosamund Pike as Lady Elsbeth Catton in 'Saltburn.'

Rosamund Pike as Lady Elsbeth Catton in ‘Saltburn.’ Photo: Amazon MGM Studios. Amazon MGM Studios.

Emerald Fennell won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for ‘Promising Young Woman,’ which was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Editing. While ‘Saltburn’ may not rise to the level of Best Picture, and Fennell won’t make the cut in what looks like an already mostly locked Best Director race, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (for Barry Keoghan), and either Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress for Rosamund Pike seem like possible nods for the film.

Keoghan delivers a tour de force, as we mentioned above, and Pike is equally sensational, but with less screen time we might see her compete for Best Supporting instead. ‘Saltburn’ should easily compete in the categories for Production Design, Costume Design, and Editing as well, and may score a few wins in those fields even if it doesn’t land any of the bigger trophies of the night – unless the raunchier aspects of the film turn off some of the more staid Academy voters altogether.

Final Thoughts

Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick in 'Saltburn.'

Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick in ‘Saltburn.’ Photo: Amazon MGM Studios. Amazon MGM Studios.

Yes, it’s derivative of other films and arguably not as clever or surprising as it thinks it is, but we had a blast watching ‘Saltburn’ nonetheless. As we said earlier, it’s sumptuous to look at, backed with great music, and features one of the best ensemble casts we’ve seen in a film this year – with Barry Keoghan once again proving himself to be one of the finest rising young actors of his generation. The movie may not be especially shocking (well, maybe a little) but it’s certainly perverse in a gleeful way, and Emerald Fennell manages to keeps us entertained and even a bit titillated for two hours.

‘Saltburn’ receives 8 out of 10 stars.

“We’re all about to lose our minds.”

R2 hr 11 minNov 24th, 2023

Showtimes & Tickets

Struggling to find his place at Oxford University, student Oliver Quick finds himself drawn into the world of the charming and aristocratic Felix Catton, who invites… Read the Plot

What is the plot of ‘Saltburn’?

Lonely new Oxford student Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), desperate to make friends, is drawn into the social circle of popular, rich, and powerfully attractive Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). When Felix invites Oliver to spend the summer at Saltburn, the Catton family’s country estate, Oliver finds himself in the midst of a truly eccentric family whose wealth and privilege mask the emptiness of their existence – until Oliver is added into the mix.

Who is in the cast of ‘Saltburn’?

  • Barry Keoghan (‘The Banshees of Inisherin’) as Oliver Quick
  • Jacob Elordi (‘Priscilla’) as Felix Catton
  • Rosamund Pike (‘I Care a Lot’) as Elspeth Catton
  • Richard E. Grant (‘Loki’) as Sir James Catton
  • Alison Oliver (‘Fame Dogs’) as Venetia Catton
  • Carey Mulligan (‘She Said’) as Poor Dear Pamela
  • Archie Madekwe (‘Gran Turismo’) as Farleigh Start
'Saltburn' opens in theaters on November 22nd.

‘Saltburn’ opens in theaters on November 22nd. Photo: Amazon MGM Studios.

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