As with her unmissable directorial debut Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennell continues to shamelessly overcook themes and scenes to delirious effect in her latest. Florid and gothic, with its summer heat color-saturated photography by Linus Sandgren (La La Land), the mid-2000s, mostly English castle-set tale pairs well (or clashes well) with cinematic treatments of Bret Easton Ellis (aspects of the film are reminiscent of Mary Harron's adaptation of American Psycho or Paul Schrader's The Canyons, scripted by Ellis). It also has plot elements and pervasive intense sexual longings found in Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on the Train (one of Fennell's characters may likely be named after Farley Granger from Hitchcock's film version), and André Aciman's Call Me By Your Name and Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty (both of which were prominent novels published around the time Saltburn is set).
There is sometimes a novelistic feel to Saltburn, with voice-over reminiscing from its main character Oliver Quick (derided as a "scholarship boy who buys his clothes from Oxfam" with a Call Me By Your Name flip tricky-Dickensian title; he's played marvelously by Barry Keoghan). We follow his uncomfortable, squirmy times at Oxford as he becomes infatuated with fellow student Felix (Jacob Elordi). Felix is somewhat genial, with his lanky build, floppy dark hair and pierced eyebrow, but also sort of dull and disaffectedly cool. Oliver slowly becomes part of his inner circle (there's something acutely aching about Arcade Fire's "No Cars Go" playing at their first significant bar scene interaction). Felix's longtime friend Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) who also lives with Felix's family, seems threatened by this new relationship. Sometimes Oliver is off and sort of off-putting, but soon the two re-bond. After graduation, Felix invites Oliver to spend summer at his family's rambling titular estate (humorously, Felix gives a disheveled tour of the rooms and the "dead rellys" of this ridiculous place).
The prickly and sprawling first and second halves of the film are the strongest, and the funniest, as we watch Oliver (occasionally sadistic in his all of his times "to pretend" as the MGMT track suggests) ingratiate himself into this kooky clan spearheaded by Rosamund Pike's Elsbeth and Sir James Catton (Richard E. Grant in his second movie this year, after The Lesson, playing a wealthy father in a house near a perilous pond; perhaps intentional casting, Grant's piercing, light-eyed appearance is closer to Oliver's than Felix's). Elsbeth's friend, the mooching "Poor" Pamela (a brilliant Carey Mulligan), who Elsbeth describes as a "complete limpet," with her red-banged wig, cold, unemotional expressions and stiff movements is an absolute hoot (I wanted more of her! Maybe a whole "Poor Pamela" movie?). As Felix's sister Venetia (Alison Oliver, completely absorbing here) intones prophetically, "We are all about to lose our minds," it becomes apparent that everything is going to unravel garishly, psychosexually, and grandly.
The reputation for this film has been dubbed as shocking, but for those raised on decades of music videos and thriller junk, it won't be. In a way, it's interesting to see many "prestige" mainstream films as so staid, whereas much of television has become so artfully violent and carnal (in years past, it used to be the other way around). Perhaps because Fennell has worked in television (including Killing Eve), she seems comfortable in this register, and quite fearless. She builds good, thorny characters and helps elicit striking performances. Much hinges on the lead, I can imagine another film flatlining and collapsing without Keoghan's layered and fidgety strangeness.
Even though Saltburn isn't nearly as meticulously plotted and executed as Promising Young Woman, the third act a saggy, over-explained disappointment (save from the absolutely fantastic resolution), watching it again, it's so elegantly filmed and deliriously engrossing. The riveting string score by Anthony Willis mirrors Oliver's delusions and freezing diabolicalness. The varied costumes by Sophie Canale (there's lots of fun to be had in the simplicity of the apparel at the Midsummer's Night Dream themed party (Abercrombie jeans & angel wings)--a funny and perfect allusion / illusion). The pop music supervision, lighting, mood (these are all such lavishly alone characters) captures a vapid melancholy of a pre-smartphone era twilight. ***