Saltburn: One of 2023’s most mesmerizing and convoluted films

Saltburn -- Courtesy of Prime Video
Saltburn -- Courtesy of Prime Video /

I haven’t seen a film that looked better on the big screen this year than Saltburn, Emerald Fennell’s second feature, following Promising Young Woman, the #MeToo thriller that was nominated for five Oscars and won Best Original Screenplay. Saltburn looks really, really good, with lavish and lush visuals and one music sequence by MGMT that’s juxtaposed with tight shots of wealthy young people playing tennis. There’s plenty of abs and women in expensive heels.

Like Promising Young Woman, Saltburn is a provocative film. It has some of the biggest WTF moments I’ve seen in any film this year. That said, while some of its tones dazzle and feel like a mouthful of cotton candy, Saltburn’s muddied themes confound and, at their worst, confuse. It’s no wonder this is one of the most divisive movies of the year, generating a lot of healthy debate. Is it a vampire movie? Is it a movie about class? Is it a movie that tells us to eat the rich or be more like the rich? Fennell’s feature doesn’t arrive at any solid answers, and instead, toys with a few different concepts that aren’t fully realized. Let’s unpack some of it.

Warning: major spoilers!

Saltburn’s Messy Class Politics

Saltburn stars Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick, a not-so-subtle nod to Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, a story about an orphan born in a workhouse and forced into child labor, until he escapes. Initially, it’s easy to feel for Oliver. Set in 2006 at Oxford, the film is largely from Oliver’s POV. He’s presented to us as an outsider, someone who doesn’t fit in and can’t quite climb the class ladder. He writes every essay and reads all the books, but he’s still belittled by characters like Farleigh (Archie Madekwe). Farleigh is a 1 percenter and has a nonchalant and breezy attitude about his studies, something afforded to him because of his class status.

Farleigh is part of a larger family, which includes Felix (Jacob Elordi), whose abs get plenty of screen time. Like Farleigh, and unlike Oliver, Felix doesn’t worry too much about his grades, or even cleaning his dorm room, for that matter. He’s a legacy student. It’s doubtful he’ll be kicked out. Felix and Oliver start a romance, though it’s clear Oliver uses Felix for access to his esteemed family.

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Unlike the other wealthy characters, Felix isn’t that bad. When Oliver can’t afford to buy another round of drinks at the bar for Felix and his uber wealthy buddies, he lends Oliver the money. It’s nothing to him. Felix’s parents, meanwhile, played by Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant, are totally clueless. They’re the comedic relief, sheltered elite who have no idea how the real world operates because they’re waited on hand and foot and live in a bubble. They also talk quite openly about Oliver’s past, after he tells Felix his mom is a drug user and his dad died by falling and busting his skull open. He’s like a cute, helpless pet they want to adopt.

Here’s where the film runs into somewhat of a problem. A bit past the halfway point, Felix learns that everything Oliver told is a lie. He’s not some poor scholarship case. No, his family is middle-class, at the very least, and both of his parents are quite alive and perfectly healthy. It becomes unclear who exactly we’re supposed to sympathize with. Should we feel bad for the dopey, wealthy characters because Oliver used them? Should we feel bad for Felix, who’s had everything in his life handed to him? Meanwhile, Oliver’s entire premise is built on a lie.

It’s here where the film feels a bit hollow. Fennell never makes a clear statement about class politics. Instead, the film sort of straddles the line. At times, it’s easy to feel sort of sorry for the wealthy family, especially Felix, then it is for the character presented as an outsider. They’re all awful people, and Oliver does what he can to worm his way into their swanky lifestyle. Unlike say, last year’s film The Menu, or Ready or Not a few years prior, this isn’t an eat the rich type of film. It’s difficult to ascertain what exactly it wants to say about class if anything. Meanwhile, Fennell attended Oxford around the same time this movie is set, so it’s likely she observed and attended parties like the ones depicted in the film, though she doesn’t quite come out and outright condemn that lifestyle. Heck, she makes it look pretty darn stylish.

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Is Saltburn a Vampire Movie?

At the London Film Festival in early October, Fennell likened Saltburn to a vampire movie and went a step further and said she hopes it’ll be considered part of the Gothic tradition. Vampires have long been associated with blood-sucking capitalism. In Bram Stoker’s novel, Count Dracula is an aristocratic eastern European white dude. The entire narrative happens after one of the main characters, Jonathan Harker, visits the Count’s estate early in the book to set up a real estate transaction. The Count then feeds on Harker and attacks those closest to him. In his opus about the perils of capitalism, entitled Das Kapital, Karl Marx uses vampire and monster imagery to critique capitalism. He compares it to a bloodsucker, with the worker/proletariat being the prey, drained of their very life force and individuality.

There are plenty of moments of consumption throughout Saltburn. In a truly gross-out scene, Oliver licks Felix’s dirty bathwater. In another scene with Felix’s sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver), Oliver takes control of her and even smears her period blood on her chest and licks it. That said, these moments of consumption don’t quite go far enough for the vampirism to work, no matter how gross and shocking they may be.

Yes, Oliver pushes himself into the family and finds means to kill them off to devour their wealth, but this feels as shallow as some of the class politics at stake. Since Oliver is already at Oxford, and since his family isn’t exactly poor, what exactly is the point? The ending, when he dances around naked in their mansion, is even more confounding. Should we envy the wealthy and want what they have? Should we root for a horrible character for taking down the family? It’s a frustrating ending, for sure, that squanders much of what Fennell built up throughout the runtime.

Though Saltburn may be the most befuddling and, at times, aggravating film I’ve seen this year, it’s still one of the most mesmerizing. It’s a visually dazzling film, and Fennell proved with Promising Young Woman that she has a sharp eye. That said, the candy-sweet tones and colors can’t make up for a hollow core. Still, I’m excited to see what Fennell does next. She certainly provokes with her filmmaking.

Saltburn is still in theaters and will stream exclusively on Amazon Prime starting on December 22.

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