Satlburn is one of those films that is just begging to be the best thing you’ve watched all year. It comes from writer/director (and actress) Emerald Fennell, who has already proven to be an expert in her craft with Promising Young Woman. However, while Saltburn lights the auditorium on fire for the first two acts, it’s unable to stick the landing.
The film follows Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), a quiet first year student at Oxford University. Over the course of the movie he has various encounters with his school mates, and eventually befriends Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). When Catton invites him to his family’s prestigious Saltburn manor, things go far beyond crazy.
Keoghan is phenomenal in his role. He went to the extreme in every scene to push Oliver from a simple troubled student, to being borderline psychotic. The character has to walk a very thin line for most of the film to work, and Keoghan presents a masterclass to bring this character to life. Likewise, Elordi once again proves that he will eventually win an Oscar. It probably won’t be for Saltburn because it’s a film that the Academy generally shies away from, but it will happen at some point.
Archie Madekwe is starting to really come into his own, and while he isn’t the main focus of Saltburn, his performance as Farleigh Start has a significant impact on almost every scene he’s featured in. Madekwe was satisfactory in Gran Turismo, but with the impressive script of Saltburn, his talents are allowed to shine much brighter.
As a whole, the acting in Saltburn is some of the best of the year, but the atmosphere and tension Fennell creates is what truly draws the audience in. The film is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio instead of the more traditional 16:9. This gives the impression that the audience is closer to the characters in every scene. It’s a subtle effect to be sure, but it works exceptionally well, especially during tense moments.
The problem with Saltburn is that it’s an uneven film. The first two acts weave a tangled web of mystery and intrigue, setting up what could have been a spectacular ending. Instead, Fennell chose to go with the most predictable and dull ending she could come up with. All of the twists and turns for the first 90 minutes keep the audience guessing as to how this all ends, but then the ending is just what most would expect and nothing more.
While no big surprises at the end of the film was disappointing, it’s exacerbated by the fact that Fennell essentially spoon-feeds the conclusion to the audience. If there were any questions about what happened and why, the last 20 minutes of the film turns on all the lights and delivers a Power Point presentation, eliminating any intrigue that was so well-earned during the first half of the film. It almost felt as though some executive at MGM saw the film, was overly confused, and told Fennell to spell it out so everyone could understand what was going on.
When taken in as one complete movie, Saltburn is still entertaining enough to recommend watching, but a better ending would have gone a long way toward giving the film a lasting impact. As it stands, Saltburn is fine, but it feels more like a modern day Cruel Intentions (without the fun elements) than the wickedly intelligent tale of deceit that it started off as.
Synopsis: 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.
Director: Emerald Fennell
Writer: Emerald Fennell
Stars: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Archie Madekwe
Runtime: 2 Hours, 7 Minutes
Bryan Dawson has been writing professionally since the age of 13. He started his career as a video game writer and has since worked for Random House, Prima Games, DirecTV, IGN, AOL, the British Government, and various other organizations. For GNN, Bryan taps into his passion for movies.