The actors’ strike is over, the Hollywood studios are in full swing, turning out new products as fast as they can, and a new season begins. This doesn’t mean the new movies will be any better than the old ones, but before we find out, my advice is: don’t let 2023 end without investigating a gem called Saltburn. It’s one of my personal unexpected, under-praised and unseen favorites of the holiday season, and I urge you to check it out immediately.
SALTBURN ★★★★ (4/4 stars)
Gorgeously photographed by Linus Sandgren, it’s both beautifully directed and cleverly written by British Oscar-winner Emerald Fennell, who follows her highly regarded Promising Young Woman with a film of even more staggering impact. Instead of a title that sounds like an incendiary irritation resulting from too much pale, vulnerable English skin exposed to too much summer sun, Saltburn is the name of a stately country mansion in the British countryside where the aristocrats play, and the commoners in the snobbish English class system drool longingly from a safe distance. Into this rarefied ambiance of wealth and privilege wanders an Oxford student named Oliver Quick, played with dexterity, personality and overwhelming moment-to-moment realism by Barry Keoghan, the Irish actor who stole whole scenes from the entire cast as the tragic village idiot in The Banshees of Inisherin. Now, in the breakthrough performance of his young career, he dominates almost every scene until you anticipate his every return.
As a lowly scholarship student at Oxford, he’s met with coldness, suspicion, even indifference—until he meets popular, charismatic, handsome and super-rich Felix Catton (played by Jacob Elordi, who can also currently be seen as the miscast Elvis in Sofia Coppola’s disappointing Priscilla). Helping Felix with his bicycle chain, Oliver gets adopted as the campus glamour boy’s sidekick, developing a crush on his idol that we know with fascination and dread will lead to toxic consequences.
Life changes dramatically when Felix invites Oliver to spend the summer at his family’s luxurious summer estate, Saltburn, where his passion for status and respect drives a poor working-class bloke to madness and murder. Oliver is shocked but feverishly excited by the members of his idol’s eccentric family—younger nymphomaniac sister Venetia Catton (Alison Oliver), arrogant, condescending father (Richard E. Grant), beautiful but shallow family matriarch Elspeth Catton (Rosamund Pike, in an award-worthy performance that elevates and enhances every scene she’s in). As each one comes alive, so does Fennell’s scrupulously disguised screenplay, which stabs the pretentious English class system with a priceless antique knife dipped in potassium cyanide.
Slowly, then eagerly, the new house guest joins them skinny dipping and playing tennis in black ties and sequins. Everyone knocks themselves out trying to appear unconventional, but they’re too boring to be interesting for very long. Oliver is too smitten to notice and too nervous to realize he’s in over his head. He vomits a lot and has punishing migraines, emboldened by sequences of startlingly graphic homoeroticism. The most widely discussed of these that has brought out a bacchanal of reveals that say more about the prudish prejudices of film critics than the excesses of the movie itself is not the one where Oliver watches from the bathroom while Felix masturbates, but later, in the scene some critics have rejected as the film’s most alarming, repugnant (and mesmerizing) sequence when he bends beside Felix’s bathtub and drinks his bathwater. It’s a scene so reminiscent of the one in The Talented Mr. Ripley when Matt Damon asks Jude Law if he can join him in his bathtub that it reminds you of other “borrowed” thematic influences—from Joseph Losey’s The Servant to Evelyn Waugh’s immortal masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited.
None of this matters because the theme of class-conscious allure and the depraved limits to which the disenfranchised will go to conquer it has no limitations. From Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun to Alain Delon in Purple Noon, and most profoundly, Matt Damon in the aforementioned master thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley, a film that is now almost 25 years old and still holding viewers hostage. The stupid, self-centered Catton family never suspects the dangerous extremes to which Oliver Quick will go to make their lifestyle his own. To that end, the power of Barry Keoghan’s center-ring performance cannot be adequately over-praised. It’s an intricately palpitating and jaw-dropping performance that surpasses the memorable work he did in The Banshees of Inisherin and makes you long to see what he’ll do next.
As his crush on Felix builds, Oliver wallows in delicious debauchery and lurid immorality, illuminated by stunning visuals, as he surrenders to lust, greed and the need for social acceptance on a superior level. Brave and fearless to a fault, including a lot of graphic nudity, he’s the reason this dark and demented psychodrama turns into a sumptuous and elegantly polished jewel that is not to be missed.