Following up a massively successful debut film is a monstrous, and often disastrous endeavor. While occasionally you’ll get a film like Creed, Little Women, or Us, it is far more likely that hubris and delusions of grandeur will cloud a director’s artistic vision to create a massive, sprawling, messy, and occasionally unwatchable film. So trepidations are in order when approaching Saltburn, Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to her Oscar-winning Promising Young Woman. Yet while the film suffers all the pratfalls of a second outing – confusing themes, an overwritten story, sloppy editing to accommodate an overstuffed plot – Fennell at least manages to placate audiences with the key elements of a successful film: great actors and insanely audacious story choices.
Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) never really had a chance socially at Oxford University. Despite his sharp intellect, the fact he lacks wealth or nobility made him a pariah amongst the trust fund students that fill the prestigious university’s hallowed halls. That is, of course, until he found himself under the wing of Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), the son of an old, wealthy family and the most popular boy in school. After the death of Oliver’s father, Felix invites him to stay at Saltburn, the sprawling estate of the Catton family, along with his eccentric relatives. Their summer together soon becomes one that will never be forgotten.
For Saltburn, Fennell finds herself exhibiting mastery over both overt flourishes as well as the subtler moments. I do use the term “subtle” loosely, of course. There is little subtle about Fennell’s nasty tale of jealousy and greed. When Felix first gives Oliver – and by extension, the audience – a tour of the massive estate, his casually shocking comments overtly demonstrating the sheer apathy of the excessively wealthy. “This is where I accidentally fingered my cousin after a party, that’s the bed covered in Henry VIII’s spunk…” he declares. By the time an English lord is singing Flo Rida’s “Low” at karaoke, it is already abundantly clear the lack of shame or self-awareness that they possess – and how it ultimately doesn’t matter.
Of course, all of this is nothing compared to the levels of depravity that the Cattons pass on to Oliver (or perhaps vice versa…), and the lengths which Fennell is willing to go to in order to prove them. The question of what is “necessary” in a film, sexually or otherwise, has been raised time and again thanks to sex-fearing TikTok influencers. And quite frankly, it is one that could be understandably asked about here. None of Fennell’s depraved decisions make a lick of sense (and, quite frankly, are relatively tame as compared to what they could be), yet titillate the senses in that special way that only film can.
Do we already have a sense of Oliver’s obsession with Felix before the insane lengths Fennell has him go through? Yes. Is it necessary to watch what Keoghan is willing to do to a bathtub in order to understand the homoerotic undertones? Not at all. Yet each insane story beat, combined with Fennell’s and Keoghan’s commitment, stand out as utterly memorable nonetheless – whether it involves period sex, necrophilia, or beyond. In lesser hands, this level of on-the-nose storytelling and utter nastiness might be a crutch, or a distraction. But Fennell is both talented and assured enough that it works – and works well, with each frame daring you to look away, which you’ll never do.
However, that very lack of subtlety is also the film’s greatest downfall. Unlike the mastery on display in Fennell’s debut outing, the Saltburn screenplay foregoes every sense of nuance. There is no subtext in this film; every theme is presented outright as text. Take, for example, the way that the film establishes Oliver as a character. We spend almost twenty minutes establishing exactly how big a loser he is – something obvious within the first minute of screentime – before the story even gets going. And sure, it’s fun watching Keoghan creepily stare at people from the bushes, but it is also a major cliche.
Furthermore, there’s also the matter of how the film tries to handle its class commentary. While the Cattons are portrayed as cold and disaffected, they very rarely do anything worth criticizing. Hell, the only time they go beyond the wealth comedy of the average episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is when Pike’s Elsbeth off-handedly references her friend’s suicide: “She’d do anything for attention.” It’s almost as if Fennell, who comes from a wealthy family herself, is incapable of viewing the wealthy characters as anything other than eccentric, and makes it unclear where our loyalties and desires should lie during the film’s twisty, “shocking” final act.
I use the word “shocking” liberally here, because there really aren’t any twists that actually manage to shock any audience who has ever seen a film before. Every twist is telegraphed to the audience well before it takes effect. Whether it’s a character whose story isn’t quite what he makes it out to be, a character meeting an unfortunate fate, or just your average bit of withheld information, Fennell has failed to craft any mystery or drama in her story.
There’s only one twist with any shock value comes within the film’s last five minutes, cribbed directly from two 90s classics that I won’t list here. Ironically, while it’s the only choice that Fennell doesn’t telegraph from a mile away, it also serves as a demonstration of how poorly she set up her own climax. With no evidence in the film’s first two acts to support it, Fennell relies on sloppy editing to both mask and hobble together her big reveal – a move that ultimately serves to undermine her own movie’s themes. It’s a bit disappointing if you try to analyze it for even a fraction of a second. Thankfully, you may not need to, for Fennell masks her own shortcomings with a final scene of sheer, audacious scope involving a one-shot naked dance. It’s enough to win you over despite yourself.
Perhaps I am giving Fennell’s direction a little too much credit, of course. After all, credit for what works here belongs to her very game cast. Keoghan is excellent, as always, willing to bare it all for his performance as a needy, blossoming mastermind – in every sense of the word. Perhaps more impressive, though, is Elordi. The Euphoria star is finally given the chance to spread his wings and show off a charismatic, aloof, narcissist in a way that is both alluring and far more complex than whatever he’s given on the HBO show.
The rest of the cast rises to the level of “serviceable,” giving good performances that never reach for any deeper or expressive meaning. This includes Alison Oliver’s bulimic Catton sister, Archie Madekwe’s skeptical cousin, Rosamund Pike delivering deliciously monstrous lines as an aloof mother, or Richard E. Grant as the weird older dad. Oh, and Carey Mulligan shows up in a big red wig – it’s marvelous.
Saltburn is the quintessential example of a good director trying to overextend. After her taut debut, Fennell has found herself overwrought exploring the exact same themes so many other directors have explored before, and better. However she has done so with such a unique, entertaining flourish that it’s hard not to be entertained throughout. It is admirable for its direction and acting, but one hopes that the rising director regains her footing thematically going forward in her career.
Saltburn will be released exclusively in theaters November 17th