Evil Resides in "Saltburn"


Director: Emerald Fennell
Starring: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, Archie Madekwe
Studio: MGM
Genre(s): Drama/Thriller
Rated: R (For strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, some disturbing violent content, and drug use)

When "Saltburn" begins we are looking into the eyes of a man who seems to be talking directly at us. "Did I love him?" he asks. Who is the "him" he is referring to? It turns out the man is a classmate named Felix (Jacob Elordi), a student from a wealthy family, is popular with the ladies, and seems to do good in school even though it doesn't appear that he spends much time in class or doing much homework. The boy we are listening to is named Oliver (Barry Keoghan). We don't know much about Oliver at this point. We sense that he is lonely, maybe a bit of an introvert, and (most importantly) that he desperately wants a friend.

He is a person that under normal circumstances we would take a liking to instantly and be rooting for to succeed. I knew this in my head, but I didn't feel it in my heart. There was something about Oliver that I didn't trust right off the bat.  For this, I must give a lot of credit to Barry Keoghan, who presents Oliver as a lonely boy who just needs a friend or two, while simultaneously giving off the impression that something is going on in his mind that may be mentally unstable (maybe even sinister).As the movie goes on and more layers of Oliver are peeled away, I knew that I was not only in the presence of one of the most unique characters I've seen in cinema in a long time but that he was being brought to life by one of the most gifted filmmakers of our generation: Emerald Fennell.

Fennel's debut film was "Promising Young Woman," for which she won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. In that movie, we followed an emotionally traumatized woman who wanted to catch predatory men in the act of taking advantage of women for her own self-comfort. What that comfort would bring was a little questionable for most of the film, but we all know that people do strange things when they are coping with emotional trauma. In "Saltburn" Fennell is not only tackling trauma again but asking more serious questions like:
  • What happens if you are born into money?
  • What part does social status determine what friends we have?
  • Where does fluid sexuality belong in a family (and building) of tradition?
  • Can we truly trust our own thoughts and ambitions?
These are many of the uncomfortable questions we've been asking since the founding of any society, and these are questions we will likely always ask. What may rub some viewers the wrong way is the seediness of which the film almost revels in, as it throws one uncomfortable situation after another at the viewer, knowing that it is pushing the bounds of what many may consider "good taste" but being bold enough to do so, while confident in the final destination we have no idea it is coming to.

In the form of Oliver, Fennell has created a character who is on the surface unstable while deep down may be the most confident mess of a human being you will ever see. His friendship with Felix is always in flux as we try to figure out where it will go, as well as a family who may be too stuck in their own traditional lives to be able to see the chaos they are enabling by being so passive about the world outside. It is a story of a situation that should not be taking place, and yet in many different ways, the world seems like a logical extension of what we as a society have allowed to happen.

"Saltburn" is not a film you recommend because it is fun to watch. On the contrary; it is gross, repulsive, and more than a little twisted. That is entirely the point, and if you aren't into spending two hours of your life this way, I'll understand you passing this up. Yet much like how "Bonnie & Clyde," "The Graduate," and "Do the Right Thing" took sharp looks at culture and where America stood at the time, so too does Emerald Fennell's "Saltburn" provide a fearless look at where we as a society have let us degrade ourselves too. Throw in a great performance that shows Barry Keoghan is shaping up to be one of this generation's finest actors, and I can not help but feel "Saltburn" has left an unmistakable mark in cinema history.