I liked it better when it was called The Talented Mr. Ripley. Seriously, if you’re going to pay homage to another film, it doesn’t do you any favors to almost rip it off beat for beat. Granted, it’s been 20 years since I’ve seen Mr. Ripley, but I recall it pretty much being the same movie — albeit much better looking and in more exotic locations. This is like the superficial Romeo + Juliet version of that film. Lots of needle drops, incongruous raves and uncomfortable slurping / humping scenes meant to either be cringey, odd for no reason or mere filler to distract us from the fact the character motivation doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Ignoring the obvious connections to that 1996 film, let’s take Saltburn for what it is. And what it is is an entertaining film that, when you take even a tiny step back, fails to hang together in even the smallest way. Because at the center of the movie is Oxford student, Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan). We are shown his life at Oxford only through the filmmaker’s POV. So we are led to believe he is a scholarship student (aka smart, but poor) amongst the rich kids at this elite university. He focuses his desire for social status on the incredibly handsome and charismatic Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). Who he somehow befriends through means that seem serindipitous and/or like Felix is taking pity on this kid with the lame clothes and clear social anxiety. The rapid growth of their relationship and the speed with which they become confidants to one another is questionable. Only one of many questionable things in this film. But we’ll go with it. Ultimately, it’s summer break, Oliver claims he has nothing going on and Felix invites him to come stay with him for the summer at his family’s estate, Saltburn. I think the film’s writer/director, Emerald Fennell, tries to justify this seemingly odd invite later on as some nefarious rich-guy-playing-god-with-the-poor-kid plot, but also kind of shoots that full of holes with her own narrative. Again, it’s just one of many contradictory explanations and plot points in the film that muddy the motivations of every character and undermine her own message. Whatever that message is.
What is weird here is that Fennell seems to be trying to say something about class and wealth and the desire to have it and keep it. Or maybe about privilege and taking it for granted. I’m not sure. But by putting a sociopath like Oliver at the middle of it, and not making his sociopathy clear — is he obsessed with Felix, or Saltburn, or wealth, or class, or just being in control — as he insinuates himself into the Catton family, it makes it impossible for us to know or understand what it all means at the end of the day. And it’s possible that it all means nothing. And that Oliver is just Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction, and once he gets a taste of Felix’s life at school, he will do anything to be part of it. Way beyond boiling his bunny. Because of this muddled approach, the reveal at the end of the film elicits more shrugs than dropped jaws. Again, it’s a pretty entertaining film through most of it, but we can’t really feel the full impact of act three — which feels almost more like an epilogue than a continuation of the narrative — because it’s impossible to follow motivations throughout. It’s unclear if this was an attempt on Fennell’s part to try to hide to ball, or if it was just clumsy plotting. But there was a better film lurking in there. One that was both fun and surprising (in the good way). Instead, the thing ends and you’re like “Well, that was weird. But also sorta fun. But also not that good film-wise.”
You know what would be cool? If we could take this same cast — because the actors are mostly awesome — and completely rework the script to clarify and streamline the Oliver character’s thoughts and actions. Because we know at this point that Keoghan plays a great innocent with a heart of coal. And not having been familiar with Elordi previously, he plays a great posh nice guy. Rosamund Pike is amazing, and Richard E. Grant plays an incredibly realistic eccentric, clueless rich guy. In other words, all the pieces are there, but the execution was shaky. I think perhaps this was supposed to be more of a comedy than I’m giving it credit for, but if I have to question if things are supposed to be funny, then it’s not succeeding on that level either. And perhaps my being American and not British puts me at a disadvantage when it comes to the silliness of their class system, but I can see what she’s going for in several places, but still just think it’s more intentional filmmaking goofiness than actual biting social commentary. I think for some this could be worth watching. Just because it feels relevent for our film discourse in 2023 as far as films go. But, otherwise, it doesn’t have a ton to say.