When I went to see “Saltburn” with one of my friends from high school over Thanksgiving break, I was expecting a goth version of “Call Me by Your Name.” It was what I was hoping for; watching a romantic drama is the perfect way to end the night after a long day at work. I had heard it was a little gross, but I was not thinking about that when the Nicole Kidman AMC Theatres commercial came on screen and the lights turned off.
“Saltburn” is not the goth version of “Call Me by Your Name.” It amps the audacious meter up to 10 and will leave most people who watch it asking themselves, “What did I just watch?”
The film follows the story of University of Oxford freshman Oliver (played by Barry Keoghan) and his obsessive, homoerotic friendship with the rich and charming Felix (played by Jacob Elordi). As the year closes, Felix invites Oliver to stay at his family’s estate, Saltburn, over the summer.
Oliver’s stay at Saltburn is full of sex, partying and navigating the twisted world of wealth that is Felix’s family. However, as “Saltburn” goes on, the true nature of Oliver and his relationship with Felix and his family is revealed.
One of the most notable features of “Saltburn” is how visually stunning it is. Several shots emulate the splendor of being at the top of the upper class while retaining a sinister feeling. The scene from Oliver’s birthday party, where the attendees are singing “Happy Birthday” to him on a massive staircase in Saltburn while bathed in a glowing red light, was one of my favorites from any film I have watched this year.
Throughout the film, shots like these utilize color, camera angle and blocking to emphasize Oliver’s outsider status as a “scholarship boy” at Saltburn and as an overall creepy character. Close-up shots of the other characters in the film display Oliver’s stalker-esque habits, his obsession with Felix and his manipulation of Felix’s family to get what he wants and not be treated as “just another one of Felix’s toys.”
Keoghan is known for playing weird characters. His roles in “The Green Knight,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” and 2022’s “The Batman” were all creepy, and he always portrays freaks incredibly well.
However, his portrayal of Oliver blows all of his previous roles as a weirdo out of the water. Oliver is likely the creepiest character he has played yet, and he made viewers' stomachs easily churn. From the beginning of the movie, where we see him peering into Felix’s dorm to watch him make out with a girl, to the scene where he watches Felix masturbate into a bathtub and then drinks the water when he leaves, Keoghan’s performance is nasty.
Keoghan’s character interactions with the rest of the family are equally disturbing. Viewers watch as Oliver worms his way into Felix’s family, from flirting with Felix’s mother, Elsbeth, to having relations with both Felix’s sister Venetia and cousin Farleigh.
Elordi also delivered a masterful performance as Felix. He naturally performs the role of charming party kid and leaves viewers swooning. His portrayal of Felix is also very aloof — a characteristic of most of his family members — and he glosses over the privilege his character has. It is easy to forget that an actor is portraying Felix, and viewers easily believe that he has lived in Saltburn his whole life.
The performances of the other supporting cast members are also very well done. Rosamund Pike as Elsbeth is a perfect unsympathetic, gossip-loving mother to Felix and Alison Oliver plays the perfect unstable younger sister. In particular, Archie Madekwe’s Farleigh is an incredible reflection of Oliver and a very snobby yet insecure, antagonistic figure in “Saltburn.”
Emerald Fennell’s writing and directing is what ultimately makes “Saltburn” stand out the most. Fennell wrote a complex, compelling story that never failed to shock. Several scenes made me gasp, but the message was never really lost. The audience is always aware of the difference between Oliver and his Oxford classmates and Felix’s family, as well as Oliver’s warped character. While it may not be a traditional tale of friendship or class issues, it delivers.
My only complaint with “Saltburn” is that some parts of the movie felt redundant. While an important aspect of the plot is that Oliver does not want to be abandoned by Felix (something that has happened with Felix’s friends before), it feels like it is brought up too often. Venetia, Farleigh and Oliver’s ex-friends at the beginning of the movie all mention it at least once, and eventually, it comes across as overdone and obvious and not subliminal or under the surface.
Overall, “Saltburn” is not for people afraid of being disturbed, but it is still an incredibly electrifying story. If you want to watch something that makes you question if you want to go to college or invite your best friend to your family’s vacation, this is it.