Tuesday, April 16, 2024

“SALTBURN”

THE STORY – Struggling to find his place at Oxford University, Oliver Quick finds himself drawn into the world of the charming and aristocratic Felix Catton, who invites him to Saltburn, his eccentric family’s sprawling estate, for a summer never to be forgotten.

THE CAST – Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, Archie Madekwe & Carey Mulligan

THE TEAM – Emerald Fennell (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 127 Minutes


When Emerald Fennell’s feature directorial debut “Promising Young Woman” had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020, the world was introduced to a brand new, talented, and distinct voice, one that would not shy away from the uncomfortable and was determined to provoke thought through her despairing storytelling. For her work, she received an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for her first film, a nomination for Best Director, and the film also received a nomination for Best Picture. Now, three years later, her much-anticipated followup, “Saltburn,” just had its world premiere last night at the Telluride Film Festival, and it’s already receiving divisive reactions for its dark and twisted story about class, wealth, and the lengths one will go to in order to obtain it. It’s another uncompromising work vastly different from her first film. No matter how unconventional or discomfiting, there’s no denying her immense talent behind the camera as she’s now established herself as one of the best provocateurs working today to stand alongside Lynne Ramsey, Gaspar Noe, and Lars Von Trier.

Coming into Oxford University in the class of 2006, Oliver Quick (a never-been-better Barry Keoghan) is struggling to find his place at the school as he’s bright but socially awkward. He befriends a math wiz named Michael (Ewan Mitchell), but this isn’t enough to satisfy Oliver as he has his sights set on the charismatic, handsome, aristocratic Felix Catton (“Euphoria’s” Jacob Elordi). But it’s evident Oliver doesn’t just want to befriend the popular high schooler who is continuously hooking up with seemingly every girl at the University and partying every night. Sure, the lifestyle is alluring, but Oliver’s desires are much more sensual. When he finally does infiltrate Felix’s inner circle, which includes his friend Farleigh (“Gran Turismo’s” Archie Madekwe), and opens up to Felix about his troubled home life, he’s invited to join the group at Felix’s family’s large estate called Saltburn for the summer where he meets his mother Elisabeth (Rosamund Pike), father Sir. James (Richard E. Grant), and sister Venetia (Alison Oliver). They’re joined by the orange-haired and tattooed Pamela (a brief role from Carey Mulligan), who is damaged goods personified but is also being allowed to stay at the mansion until she can get back up on her feet. Drawn to a young man and a lifestyle he doesn’t have, Oliver soon finds himself growing closer and closer with each member at Saltburn, which will lead to a summer none of them will ever forget.

Barry Keoghan has been heralded as one of the best young actors of his generation, and if you weren’t already convinced of this after his memorable performances in “American Animals,” “The Killing Of A Sacred Deer” or his Oscar-nominated work last year in “The Banshees Of Inisherin,” prepare to be blown away by what he has in store for you in “Saltburn.” Barry is absolutely fearless in a role that requires a considerable amount of skill and nuance to pull off convincingly, and he does so to the point that it makes your skin crawl. The transformation he has to pull off is a delicate balancing act aided in part by Fennell’s clear direction for the film and the editing by Victoria Boydell, which utilizes a narrative framing device audiences are likely to forget as they get sucked deeper and deeper into the story and Keoghan’s performance. After watching this, you’ll be wondering to yourself if there’s anything he’s not willing to do on camera. To reveal what he does would be a disservice. Just know it’s beyond shocking, gross, and perverted but told with a committed honesty of expression that is freeing for the Irish actor and ever captivating to watch. However, he’s not alone. Each member of the ensemble are all keenly aware of Fennell’s vision, her command over style and tone, allowing them to deliver performances that can range from effortlessly sexual (Jacob Elordi is shot and lit though as if he’s some sort of idolized angel from heaven) to darkly comedic in their sardonic wit and pompous obliviousness. In particular, Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant garner numerous laughs with their smug and superior performances, making their high-wire work appear effortless.

While the film’s editing deploys some clever match cuts and cross-cutting to help sell the audience on what exactly is transpiring once Oliver reaches the Saltburn mansion, the time leading up to it can be considered a slow (but highly sensual) burn. The soundtrack punctures the film with some pop tunes and a score that reaches operatic levels of grandeur to pull you back in. Some may find the twists in the second half of the film to be heavily telegraphed, while others will be so enamored by the dialed-in performances, Fennell’s seductive (and technically improved) direction, and the highly attractive cinematography by Linus Sandgren that they will lose themselves and later on find they’ve been taken on a wild ride that touches upon the deepest, darkest parts of humanity. Sandgren’s cinematography, in particular, is a notable highlight. With a condensed 4:3 aspect ratio used to draw audience members in, the dark gothic shadows of the nighttime scenes contrast with the sun-soaked, sweaty shots of the day, display the film’s social commentary of duality duplicity and combine various tones to create an aura that feels at times otherworldly. The film even jokingly hints that what we’re watching is a vampire story, but without all of the supernatural elements one would typically associate with vampires.

Much of “Saltburn” will remind viewers of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” but with a harder more explicit edge to it and this may lead audience members to question if what they’re receiving here is necessarily anything new or worth experiencing. And the answers will vary from person to person. Without giving anything away (it’s best to watch this movie knowing as little as humanly possible), much like the ending of “Promising Young Woman,” the ending to “Saltburn” is equally as cynical, sickening, and stunning in its brazen, in-your-face, messaging. It will undoubtedly rile people up and have many questioning the “why” behind it all, as Fennell is not interested in telling a story where good triumphs over evil or there’s a war being waged against the upper class for righteous and justified reasons. However, in a world where most films are presented in a manner we’re familiar with, with very few risks taken, Emerald Fennell has firmly established her voice two films in a row as someone who wants to turn our pre-conceived notions of what’s supposed to happen in cinema and open our eyes to how ugly, cruel and pessimistic the world really is. How long she can keep this up is a question that will likely be answered sooner rather than later. Still, for now, we should count ourselves lucky that there’s someone out there continually pushing us beyond our breaking points and offering an alternative to the majority of stories that are out there.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Emerald Fennell pushes herself on a technical level as much as she continues to push her audience into more dark and uncomfortable territory. Barry Keoghan is absolutely fearless in what is his best role to date while the entire supporting cast is completely aligned with Fennell's twisted vision. Beautiful cinematography.

THE BAD - It can feel derivative of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and will certainly make many audience members feel uncomfortable. Pacing can feel sluggish at times and there are some who will see the film's twists coming long before they take place.

THE OSCARS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 8/10

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Matt Neglia
Matt Negliahttps://nextbestpicture.com/
Obsessed about the Oscars, Criterion Collection and all things film 24/7. Critics Choice Member.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Emerald Fennell pushes herself on a technical level as much as she continues to push her audience into more dark and uncomfortable territory. Barry Keoghan is absolutely fearless in what is his best role to date while the entire supporting cast is completely aligned with Fennell's twisted vision. Beautiful cinematography.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>It can feel derivative of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and will certainly make many audience members feel uncomfortable. Pacing can feel sluggish at times and there are some who will see the film's twists coming long before they take place.<br><br> <b>THE OSCARS - </b>None <br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>8/10<br><br>"SALTBURN"