Saltburn Unleashed: A Darkly Humorous Tale Pushing Boundaries with a Zeal for Shock

In the realm of cinema, drawing inspiration from predecessors is a time-honored tradition, a way for genres to evolve and resonate across eras. Yet, in the case of Emerald Fennell's Saltburn, the homage to cinematic influences transforms into a dissonance of tone that proves to be its undoing. The film, deliberately echoing the pages of Brideshead Revisited and The Talented Mr. Ripley, goes beyond exploring themes of class envy and repressed desire. It exudes an air of arch self-satisfaction, a satire served not with a conspiratorial wink but with a disdainful sneer. Fennell's creation appears to revel in the exclusivity of its narrative club, withholding key insights from the audience.

Saltburn initiates with a promising premise, set against the backdrop of Oxford University in the early 2000s. Barry Koeghan, known for his poignant portrayal in The Banshees of Inisherin, takes on the role of Oliver Quick, a freshman desperately yearning to fit into a world that consistently rejects him. The narrative pivots around his fixation on Felix Catton, portrayed by Jacob Elordi, whose charismatic portrayal exudes a breezy charm reminiscent of a cool, unchallenged force. While Oliver seeks camaraderie with Felix, the stark contrast in their backgrounds becomes a palpable obstacle.

However, Fennell's struggle to delineate between dark, transgressive allure and outright unpleasantness becomes evident as the story unfolds. The film succumbs to an acrid aftertaste, leaving viewers grappling with a discordant blend of elements that fails to coalesce into a satisfying whole. The narrative, although rooted in an intriguing premise, loses its way in Fennell's inability to navigate the delicate balance between provocative storytelling and gratuitous shock value.

As Saltburn unfolds against the hallowed halls of Oxford, the clash of aspirations and the yearning for acceptance takes center stage. The dichotomy between Oliver's earnest desire to belong and Felix's nonchalant affluence sets the tone for a narrative that should resonate, but unfortunately, the film veers into territory marked by an excessive eagerness to shock, overshadowing its thematic potential. In the end, Saltburn becomes a cautionary tale of how a promising beginning can succumb to the pitfalls of tone, leaving audiences with a lingering sense of missed opportunities.

Amidst the complex tapestry of Saltburn's narrative, a serendipitous twist occurs when Oliver, pedaling home from a mundane class, stumbles upon Felix stranded by a flat tire. Seizing the moment, Oliver gallantly loans his bicycle to Felix, an act that unexpectedly sparks a shift in their dynamics. Felix, in an unexpected turn, extends an invitation into his exclusive circle, a coterie of friends whose disdain for Oliver is palpable, their mockery whispered behind his back, fueled by the incongruity of his OxFam wardrobe. Among these detractors, Farleigh Start, Felix's cousin, stands out as a particularly hostile force, viewing Oliver as a rival and a threat to his precarious position dependent on Felix's family charity.

Undeterred by the challenges, Oliver persists in his pursuit of Felix's friendship, if not his romantic regard. Despite the overt animosity within Felix's social circle, Oliver's revelation about his troubled family background elicits a modicum of pity from Felix. Cut off from his drug-addicted parents, Oliver finds himself with no summer sanctuary as the school term concludes. In a gesture that oscillates between genuine kindness and perhaps a touch of condescension, Felix proposes an unconventional solution: join him at his family's estate, Saltburn, for the summer—a suggestion met with reluctant acceptance from Oliver.

The allure of Saltburn lies in its enigmatic landscape, where discerning friend from foe becomes a nuanced challenge. Farleigh, a conspicuous antagonist, brandishes his haughtiness like a weapon. Duncan, the butler, exudes a disdainful snobbery reserved for those outside the echelons of privilege. Felix's emotionally fragile sister, Venetia, adds another layer of intrigue with motives shrouded in ambiguity. As for Felix himself, a captivating enigma dominates his persona throughout the film. Despite his kindness toward Oliver, a lingering question persists: what are Felix's true intentions?

The unfolding narrative takes a whimsical turn as Felix guides Oliver through the opulent family mansion, unveiling its eccentricities—rooms adorned with paintings of "dead rellies" and a bed rumored to bear Henry VIII's legacy. The jovial atmosphere, however, takes a sharp turn when Felix reveals the family's peculiar tradition of dressing for dinner. In a gesture both magnanimous and subtly undermining, Felix offers Oliver one of his discarded dinner jackets, a stark reminder of the gaping disparities that define their worlds. Saltburn, in all its uncertainty, becomes a stage where the dance between camaraderie and concealed motives unfolds, leaving the audience on the edge of anticipation, wondering who holds the cards in this enigmatic game.

In the labyrinthine corridors of Saltburn, confusion reigns, prompting the audience to question the unfolding drama—Who's pulling the strings, and who's merely a puppet? Oliver, finding his footing in the opulent estate, embraces a role far removed from his reality, reveling in a charade that extends beyond mere pretense. The revelation of his ample endowment adds a surreal layer, an unexpected twist that the film unfurls with audacious flair, inviting the audience to witness this peculiar detail firsthand.

However, with each narrative twist, the film takes on a progressively sour note, wearing its relentless pursuit of shock as a familial insignia. The grandeur of Saltburn's setting, captured in the brooding wood molding and dusty tapestries of Drayton House in Northamptonshire, conceals a realm of secrets, yet the film's delivery lacks the subtlety required to masterfully navigate the dark undercurrents it seeks to explore. In a manner reminiscent of Fennell's debut, Promising Young Woman, Saltburn leans heavily on cleverness, often at the expense of profound insight. The film attempts to dissect the psychology of sociopaths without the finesse or nuance required, opting instead to illuminate the dark side of human nature with glaring neon signs, leaving little room for audience interpretation.

Amidst these missteps, Saltburn finds redemption in its performances. Carey Mulligan injects a dose of eccentricity as a quirky family friend, her rock-star-girlfriend persona adding a touch of whimsy to the narrative. Richard E. Grant, portraying Sir James Catton, brings mild delight with his portrayal of Felix's seemingly benign father. However, the true standout is Rosamund Pike as Elsbeth, Lady Catton, the posh girl turned mistress of the manor. Pike navigates the film in an array of elegant-eccentric caftans and evening dresses, her perpetually arched eyebrows exuding a blend of shrewd wisdom and upper-crust cluelessness. Oliver, entranced by her magnetic presence, becomes a mere pawn in her orbit.

Yet, the film's overarching smugness detracts from the charm of its stellar performances. Elsbeth, with her intriguing depth, deserves a narrative canvas free from the film's self-satisfaction. Perhaps a standalone exploration of her character, delving into the hinted inspiration for Pulp's "Common People," would provide the nuanced storytelling that Saltburn, in its zealous pursuit of shock, ultimately overlooks. In the end, the movie's potential is eclipsed by its own hubris, leaving audiences yearning for a more nuanced exploration of the enigmatic world it briefly hints at but fails to fully embrace.

In its ambitious dance with shock and dark humor, Saltburn emerges as a film marked by both brilliance and overreach. The intricate setting of Drayton House and the magnetic performances, notably Rosamund Pike's captivating portrayal of Elsbeth, Lady Catton, stand as pillars of the narrative. However, the film's relentless pursuit of shock, coupled with a penchant for overt cleverness, detracts from its potential for nuanced storytelling.

As Oliver navigates the labyrinthine complexities of Saltburn, the movie grapples with its own identity, vacillating between moments of brilliance and an overarching smugness that muddles its thematic exploration. The psychology of sociopaths, a central motif, is approached with little wit or subtlety, sacrificing depth for the sake of blatant revelation. The film wears its determination to provoke like a family crest, overshadowing the grandeur of its setting and the potential richness of its characters.

Despite the missteps, there's a dollop of pleasure to be found in standout performances, from Carey Mulligan's quirky charm to Richard E. Grant's mild delight. Rosamund Pike, in particular, steals the spotlight as Elsbeth, a character deserving of a more focused narrative lens. The film's ultimate downfall lies in its unwillingness to relinquish the reins of its own narrative arrogance, leaving audiences yearning for a more profound exploration of the enigmatic world it briefly unveils.

In the end, Saltburn becomes a cautionary tale of unchecked ambition, a film that tantalizes with glimpses of brilliance but succumbs to the pitfalls of self-satisfaction. While the echoes of potential linger in its opulent halls and eccentric characters, the movie ultimately falls short of delivering the nuanced storytelling it promises. As the curtain descends on Saltburn, one is left pondering the untapped potential that lies within the shadows of its grandeur, a potential obscured by the film's own reluctance to embrace the delicate balance between shock and substance.