A student at Oxford University finds himself drawn into the world of a charming and aristocratic classmate, who invites him to his eccentric family’s sprawling estate for a summer never to be forgotten.
As good a filmmaker as Quentin Tarantino is, his Achille’s heel is when he turns loose his inner teenager. His masterfully constructive and wholly engaging narratives are suddenly marred with gratuitous violence that calls so much attention to itself, that suddenly the spell he’s labored to create is broken. As the blood splatters and limbs fly, I picture him sitting behind the camera giggling like Beavis and Butthead, nudging whoever may be nearby and saying, “Isn’t that cool?”
This penchant for sensationalism, to shock for shock’s sake, ruins Emerald Fennell’s sophomore effort “Saltburn,” a would-be social commentary that falls prey to the director’s own adolescent proclivities. However, its many gasp-inducing scenes are only part of the problem as the script’s third act reveals lapses in logic that are hard to reconcile, the filmmaker’s intent ultimately undone by narrative inconsistencies the shocks are supposed to obscure.
It all starts off promising enough at Oxford University. Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is an unassuming student, a working-class kid on scholarship who’s there to escape his mentally ill, drug-addicted parents. Like so many Dickensian heroes, he longs for something more and sees it personified in Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), scion of an old money family who live on the sprawling titular estate. Their paths cross, Quick does the Blue Blood a favor and before you know it, he’s been tendered an invitation to visit the Catton Mansion for the holidays.
To say the inhabitants are each in a world of their own is an understatement. Felix’s father, Sir James (Richard E. Grant) is content to absent-mindedly watch old sitcoms and solve each problem, as they come along with his checkbook, while his sister Venetia, is “ennui” personified, looking to seduce Quick just to relieve her boredom Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), a previous Felix-invitee who never left and “Poor Dear Pamela” (Carey Mulligan, a hoot in an extended cameo) are both leeches who long to fade into the permeance where the estate is concerned.
However, the highlight is Elspeth, the vacuous matriarch of the clan, who has no filter, her random, inappropriate thoughts falling from her mouth to create one deliciously uncomfortable moment after another. Rosamund Pike is relishing every moment of this outsized creation, stealing each scene she’s in, dropping gems like “sexually incontinent” to describe her daughter.
Nothing is what it seems and to reveal more is verboten. While Fennell goes out of her way to shock us with narrative switchbacks, upon reflection there’s nothing really new under this stylized sun. The audacity of the twists and turns offered up seem shocking and revelatory. However, once the viewers’ initial reaction wears off, the fact that Fennell has duped us sets in. Having put a high sheen on hoary narrative conventions, which prove seductive, “Saltburn” reveals itself as simply a pastiche of repackaged goods.
You have to give Fennell credit – she’s in for a penny, as well as a pound, where her arch premise and extreme characters are concerned. She doesn’t deviate from the path she’s set for herself and neither does her cast. You can tell each of them, Keoghan and Pike in particular, delight in bringing out the quirky nature of their characters and their pleasure in performing proves infectious, compelling us to hang on even when the fault lines in Fennell’s script begin to crack. In the end, “Saltburn” is much like the feelings of elation and daring you experience while out on a night of reckless abandon. It’s only during the morning after that you realize that sensation was but a momentary illusion.