Rubbing Salt in the Wound

Rubbing Salt in the Wound December 5, 2023

Drayton House, the manor used as Saltburn in the film.
Source: Wikimedia

I’ll do my best to stop this from becoming a screed. Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn (2023) is a fun movie rooted in tried material. For its first 90 minutes, I was engaged, laughing, oo-ing, ah-ing, and even staring in shock. This tale of a beleaguered scholarship student and nerd named Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) who strikes up a lucky friendship with an aristocratic Oxford collegemate, Felix (Jacob Elordi), kept me on my feet.

The movie’s beginning presents Ollie as a crestfallen loner who wanders through crowds of drunken, beautiful students. At a welcome dinner, he can only find a place across from a disconcertingly temperamental math zealot who combines all the charisma of Napoleon Dynamite and Ol’ Gil. When he does meet Felix by loaning his newfound friend a bike to ride to class, we feel relief. Finally, somebody who feels alive has noticed this poor kid. Oliver’s parents are drunks, and with nowhere to go home for summer, Felix invites him to his family’s estate, Saltburn, until the next school year.

Even as we come to like Oliver, he does some odd things. Early on, Fennell shoots Felix having sex with a girl in his dorm room. The wide shot’s focal point is the impenetrable darkness outside, glimpsed through a bay window. A red dot appears, slowly fading (we see now, burning) in and out. Oliver is outside, calmly and creepily smoking a cigarette, watching his mate get it on. Later, we will see our cherished, on-the-rise protagonist drink Felix’s bathwater after he has masturbated. His blood-soaked fingers will find their way into Felix’s sister Venetia’s (Alison Oliver) mouth during a disturbing outdoor tryst. The boy just ain’t right.

Add into this maelstrom constant warnings from Venetia and Felix’s American cousin Archie (Farleigh Start) that Oliver is just a poor boy who doesn’t belong at Saltburn, another in a long line of playthings picked up only as long as they still sparkle, and we have genuine, God’s honest conflict. The whole family is vapid and conniving (Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant do a phenomenal job as Felix’ parents) enough for anything to happen. Can Oliver keep his friend? Impress the parents? Replace Felix? What’s his goal anyway? And why does he keep getting up to such odd shenanigans? Here we’ve got the trappings of a worthy class commentary—the lower sort can only join the elite through ruthless, psychotic social climbing and deference to etiquette. It’s all or nothing—that kind of thing.

Then I got to the final 30 minutes. The only word is ‘crime’; the final bit of the movie is a crime against narrative, a decision so baffling and condescending to the audience that it retroactively colors every other frame. The last segment lands like a lead balloon on hellfire. It has to be seen to be believed.

It’s my fault really. I should have known that the opening narration, presented as if Oliver is speaking to a therapist about his love for Felix, portended awful, potent malevolence. This is not Sunset Boulevard (1950). There’s nothing revealed through the beginning voiceover except a theme: love. But the movie itself has little to do with love. What it might have had to say about desire is annihilated by the final 30 minutes anyway. No. What Fennell is up to is shadier: she is setting up a mystery we never asked for, one otherwise not hinted at. All ambiguity is shattered. As a result, the film’s dregs go down hard, though forced down our throats they are. We receive answers to unasked questions, answers sent so tactlessly and condescendingly that it’s, well, a crime.

Why is there this need to baby the audience? I thought this was an art film or at least another stab in the direction of post-MCU filmmaking, a gesture at, I don’t know, something, a balanced and confident return to form for an ailing medium. Maybe the studios couldn’t handle the ambiguity, though with Margot Robbie as a producer, I have my doubts that’s the issue.

Whatever happened here: turn this one off during the graveyard scene; you’ll know the one. Do yourself a favor: treasure the fine movie that could have been.

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