Saltburn is, at best, incredibly stupid

1.5 out of 5 stars

The animated credits of Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn pulse outward like a fiery weed taking over the screen. Like an infection or an infestation, the credits foreshadow a disease that needs to be sliced out and burned. The title references an elaborate estate owned by the Catton family, a landscape of decadence and detachment overflowing with historical footnotes and priceless artifacts. We witness the world of old money through the eyes of Oliver Quick (Barry Keogan), a chameleon-like scholarship student struggling to find his place at Oxford University. He doesn’t fit in at first, failing to understand the social and cultural nuances of the legacy families. But it’s not long before he endears himself to Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) and receives an invite to spend the summer at the Saltburn estate. 

Echoing The Talented Mr. Ripley without any of the insight, Saltburn is a misguided social critique without real substance. It’s a film of surfaces, the camera lingering on the equine beauty of Elordi and the lush greenery of an estate. With shades of wishful dark academia infused with the garish aesthetic of the mid-2000s, the illusions of Oxford as a place of learning or glamour are completely dispelled. Though these sequences are not especially compelling thematically, the film’s only real intelligence lies in these moments. When we finally get to Saltburn, the environment is treated with the prurient gaze of an Architectural Digest house tour. It’s clear that, in this world, Oliver is the poor little boy they’re taking in as the summer’s pet.

As the narrative unfolds, it becomes apparent that something isn’t quite right with Oliver. He’s a little too strategic, and he struggles to keep track of his lies. He’s a young man adjusting how he will conquer Felix and the Catton family in real-time. Barry Keogan’s diminutive stature and small eyes compared with his co-star contribute aesthetically to a sense that he is out of place. Still, Keogan’s outsized charisma and talent as an actor mean he can effortlessly navigate between a pathetic little slug and domineering opportunist at the drop of a hat. Keogan is an actor who can appear handsome and make himself small and insignificant. He uses these abilities to navigate Saltburn, appearing and disappearing at will.


The film leans into the intensely erotic compulsion that Oliver feels for Felix, attempting to paint a portrait of a sexual deviant ready to (quite literally) lap up the juices of his coveted object. Oliver’s shamelessness never feels debased, though, shot with careful attention to beauty, and it never succeeds at subverting any real taboo. The world that Oliver finds himself in is already so debased through the obscenity of extreme wealth that his supposedly transgressive behaviours don’t resonate as especially edgy. In broad strokes, an argument can be made that Oliver is willing to do just about anything to get his way, but the film struggles to strike a line between Oliver’s lust and scheming. 

Without going into spoiler territory, any strengths or assets the film may have entirely fall apart in the nonsensical or non-existent subtext. If the film is intended to be about a social climber, it adopts a rather status-quo perspective that suggests that the rich and powerful are so detached from reality that they are easy targets for abuse and manipulation. The movie doesn’t lambast the socially upward, showcasing how empty and vile the inhabitants of Saltburn are, but rather suggests that those worthy of pity are the most privileged members of society. If the film has any real critique of class differences, it’s so incoherent that it barely registers. The movie is about class, but what we are meant to feel about it is unclear. 

The film also adopts one of my least favourite cinematic tropes, pulled from movies like High Tension and Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, where we see previous scenes, now padded with added context and information, in an “epic” montage. One of the laziest and cheapest narrative tricks, it doesn’t force the audience to reconsider the events but instead completely nullifies the power and influence of the image. The sheer stupidity of the film’s final act, as Oliver’s true intentions come to light, casts a dark shadow on any semblance of coherent or compelling filmmaking that precedes it. 

What works in Saltburn? It captures the empty gloss of a mid-level Vogue cover spread. The supporting cast, especially Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant, are delightful. They charge a sense of whimsy that the overarching narrative lacks. Both Keogan and Elordi are good, and they draw out a tense chemistry of politeness as much as animalistic desire. But the film is so frustrating and nonsensical that it fails to say anything of genuine interest. ■

Saltburn (directed by Emerald Fennell)

Saltburn opens in Montreal theatres on Wednesday, Nov. 22. 

For our latest in film and TV, please visit the Film & TV section.