If you did a line of coke off a copy of Brideshead Revisited, you might approximate the Saltburn viewing experience.
Oliver (Oscar nominee Barry Keoghan) is a scholarship student at Oxford circa 2006 who struggles to make friends until he does a favor that draws him into the orbit of popular aristocrat Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). When this friendship snags Oliver an invite to Felix's titular family estate for the summer, it sets in motion a series of tragic events as Oliver enmeshes himself in the Catton family.
Courtesy of MGM and Amazon Studios Barry Keoghan and Archie Madekwe in 'Saltburn'
Saltburn is a darkly luscious portrait of obsession and visceral wanting. Fennell is wise to couch the story in the trappings of a British class drama, albeit a contemporary one. Her choice lends the transgressive elements of the film a sense of grandeur that helps make the viewer complicit in the action.
The lushness of the imagery is exquisite, turning the visual language of a psychosexual thriller into the evocative work of an old master. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren's lens evokes the baroque darkness of Caravaggio and the rococo trappings of Gainsborough. Not since director Douglas Sirk has there been a more effective cinematic use of mirrors and reflections in everything from a country pond to a highly polished dinner table. Fennell's script is equally evocative in the way it employs metaphors of moths, spiders, and vampires to create the fever dream that is Saltburn's unreal sense of reality.
Courtesy of MGM and Amazon Studios Barry Keoghan in 'Saltburn'
The picture boasts a wickedly talented cast, as devious and surprising in their performances as the story is in its twists and turns. As Oliver, Keoghan turns in a towering performance, sinister and irresistible in equal measure. He gives himself over to the plot's machinations with malicious glee, his sad eyes and severe cheekbones an effective mask for Oliver's performative, manipulative existence. Keoghan approaches every scene here with a remarkable level of abandon, propelling the film to its divinely gonzo conclusion. Neither Keoghan nor Fennell are afraid to expose the sociopathic consequences of obsession.
Courtesy of MGM and Amazon Studios Jacob Elordi in 'Saltburn'
Euphoria's Elordi charms as the dreamily delectable spoiled rich boy, employing a weaponized charm to convince audiences that his chief power is not his wealth but his crooked grin and shaggy hair. It's the best work of his career without question. Everyone makes exuberant choices, from Alison Oliver (Conversations With Friends) in her turn as troubled sister Venetia to Carey Mulligan as tragically eccentric family friend Pamela to Richard E. Grant with a pitch-perfect take on entitled befuddlement.
But Rosamund Pike is Saltburn's secret weapon — her razor-sharp wit transforms chilly family matriarch Elspeth into a terrifyingly delicious satire of the idle rich. She cuts through her scenes with the precision of an ice pick, once again proving her tremendous skill and deceptively clever approach to her work.
Amazon/MGM Rosamund Pike in 'Saltburn'
There are those who will undoubtedly find the film's excesses to be far too over-the-top, but if you're going to go full Gothic, then might as well be in for a penny, in for a pound, and f--- a fresh grave. After all, it's so very Mary Shelley. The Gothic is defined by excess and the sublime, hallmarks of Fennell's filmmaking and a welcome respite from a broad range of sterile, ascetic entertainment.
Saltburn is a provocative, violent portrait of repulsion and desire, probing the ways that intense want can transform into something deeply disturbing. Fennell understands that obsession is not merely about possession: Its end goal is consuming the object of your fascination wholly — licking the plate clean, as it were. The film is not for the faint of heart, but it is viscerally compelling and unafraid to luxuriate in its own elegant weirdness. Its endless visual and literary layers will bring its ardent admirers back to it again and again, because it is a triumph of the cinema of excess, in all its orgiastic, unapologetic glory. Grade: A
Saltburn opens in theaters Nov. 24.
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