Saltburn Is 2023’s Twistiest Gothic Thriller — And a Secret Monster Movie
Emerald Fennell’s new film is a prickly class satire wrapped in an opulent tale of desire.
Tales of the rich would not be nearly as compelling without an outsider looking in. There’s one in every generation: Gen X had Captain Charles Ryder of Brideshead Revisited, while ’90s babies had Matt Damon’s talented Mr. Ripley. But their heady, hedonistic exploits pale in comparison to those of Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), the steely-eyed narrator of Emerald Fennell’s latest trip, Saltburn.
Oliver likely wouldn’t exist without the interlopers that came before. There are shades of both Brideshead and Ripley in his brush with Britain’s upper crust. But Fennell — already a master of satire with only two films under her belt — undercuts this tale of wealth with a healthy dose of mid-noughties pomp. Yes, Saltburn is a period piece, and a deliciously tactile one at that. Its sense of place is an unlikely vessel for yet another “eat the rich” satire. But Saltburn is refreshingly free from the self-righteousness that plagues so many contemporaries. If there’s truly no ethical consumption under capitalism, then we might all be devils in disguise.
It’s 2006 when Oliver descends on Oxford University, sticking out like a sore thumb against a sea of impossibly cool, impossibly wealthy legacy kids. Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) is one such initiate, as tall and chiseled as Michaelangelo’s David; as inevitable as the sun. Everyone who’s anyone finds themselves caught in Felix’s orbit, Oliver included. A chance encounter finds these polar opposites striking up an interesting friendship, and Oliver spends the better part of the school year wondering whether Felix actually sees him as an equal. He makes himself indispensable with stories of his tragic home life, and is eventually rewarded with an invitation to summer at Felix’s ancestral home.
The Cattons, though insidiously rich, are actually kind of harmless. Felix’s sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver), is a broken bird starved for validation. Their parents, the eccentric Sir James (Richard E. Grant) and the posh Elsbeth (Rosamund Pike), are each hilariously vapid in their own ways. Save for smarmy cousin and fellow Oxford alum Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), Felix might be the most well-adjusted. If not for glimpses of Juicy Couture sweatpants and MGMT needledrops, one could easily mistake this for pre-War splendor. It’s all so quaint, so British, so traditional. It’s completely foreign to Oliver, and yet it’s all he’s ever wanted.
From the start, Saltburn has something lingering beneath the surface. Fennell, serving once more as both writer and director, is treading murky waters when it comes to theme and motive. As Oliver tours the Catton’s country estate, we’re invited to wonder whether his desire extends only to Felix — a question he denies over rapid-fire montages of his body, his neck, and the sweat pilling there — or to his life at Saltburn. His aspirations aren’t much clearer when he gets in good with the Cattons, coyly manipulating each member of his family until their sun-dappled, easy summer is entirely mired by mistrust and confusion. He’s is not losing his soul so much as he’s revealing his true colors. As pretense fades away and his allegiances shift, so too do Saltburn’s.
Like Oliver himself, this film wears many masks. It can be a story of burning desire, or a cautionary tale about repression and repulsion. It can even, at times, invoke the basic beats of a monster movie. In any other context, Saltburn’s everyman interloper would be the vampire looking to consume a pure soul from the inside out. The only difference here is that his victims, however harmless they may seem, aren’t entirely innocent.
It’s hard to completely root for Oliver as he descends further into depravity, invoking cringes from some and guilty pleasure in others — but rooting for any member of this ensemble would likely be a misconception of Saltburn’s true motive. Fennell’s debut feature, Promising Young Woman, was all about leveling the playing field, even if it meant scorching the earth in the process. It banked on the assumption that everyone is complicit in the affairs of the patriarchy, even the nice guys, or even the girls’ girls. It’s the same in Saltburn, though Fennell swaps gender politics and rape culture for an equally prickly exploration of capitalism and all its vices.
It won’t work for everyone, even if you do strip away the layers of chaotic, squirm-inducing shock. But underneath the sleaze and the sweat lies a truth that’s impossible to unsee. The allure of opulence will make monsters of us all — whether you decide to play the game or not, you might still lose.