Review: ‘Saltburn’ a spicy dish of a film

The first movie review I ever wrote, the film that inspired me to begin writing reviews almost three years ago, was the directorial debut from Emerald FennellPromising Young Woman. Although I go back and read that film review now and cringe (please don’t go read it because it’s not good), it was the first big stepping stone for my journey into the wonderful world of critiquing cinema. But now, the Oscar-winning screenplay writer Fennell is back with her follow-up film from Amazon Studios that drops into theatres on Thanksgiving, called Saltburn. 

Saltburn is the story of a lonely young man who goes to college and meets another male student. He is immediately drawn to this student, but his motives are unclear. The movie explores the themes of gluttonous extravagance, sexual desire, and carnal depravity. It is full of shocking moments that will leave audiences laughing and gasping. Although the film meanders its way through the second act, general audiences and critics alike will find it to be a spicy dish that is already loaded with Saltburn.

The story of Saltburn – a twisted tale of manipulation

[Editor’s note: There are heavy spoilers ahead for the story of Saltburn. ]

 This twisted tale of manipulation begins with some voiceover from our main protagonist, Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), where he speaks about being in love. We begin to see shots of the handsome young Felix (Jacob Elordi), with his eyebrow pierced and long dark hair; he has the Timothée Chalamet look on lockdown. We watch clips of Felix kissing girls getting undressed while Oliver looks on from outside a window, “I loved him, of course.” he expresses, “But was I in love with him?” he muses as some opera-style music blares into our ears. 

As Oliver walks through the courtyard on his first day at Oxford in 2006, his classmate Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) makes a comment about his appearance, which Oliver ignores. A tracking shot of Oliver from behind reveals an old, Renaissance-style dorm room building and a button-up blue Izod shirt, glasses, and combover haircut—an outfit that draws some nerd comparisons. Oliver looks out his window at the plaza filled with rich youngsters and sees the popular Felix smoking and surrounded by classmates and girls. Oliver stares at him momentarily until Felix looks up and spots him, forcing him to duck back behind his curtain.

One day, Oliver is riding his bike around campus when he runs into Felix, whose bike has a flat tire and is going to be late for class. Oliver lends him his bike, and Felix appreciatively thanks him and heads off. A few days later, at a bar where Felix is drinking with a group of friends, he notices Oliver and waves him over to have a drink with them.

This relationship between Oliver and Felix kicks off, and we spend the rest of the first act watching it develop. But comments made in passing to Oliver give us the impression that this friendship may be a fleeting or disposable one, at least from Felix’s point of view.

Felix’s high income truth revealed

Summer hits and Felix invites Oliver to his house, Saltburn. We finally see that Felix comes from a lot of money—not just like a good six-figure income. Saltburn is so opulent that it makes Richie Rich look like a ragamuffin. Oliver and Felix enjoy themselves with Felix’s quirky but decent family, his sly sister Annabel (Sadie Soverall), his talkative mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), and his welcoming father Sir James (Richard E. Grant). They are more than happy to have a couple of their children’s friends staying with them, including the strangely gothic and tattooed Pamela (Carey Mulligan), whom the parents are somewhat taking pity on, and the previously mentioned Farleigh, who has a bit of a contentious relationship with Oliver.

As the summer unwinds and the second act drags out at Saltburn, we see the characters naked in the fields, relaxing by the pond, and attending black-tie dinners. Some of the power plays between characters begin to clue us into the spiderweb of deception, manipulation, and conniving that’s taking place behind the scenes. But where it’s all headed and how this web will all unravel in the end remains a mystery until one big final party to end the summer season before they head back to school.

Shocking is an understatement

To say Saltburn is a shocking film is a bit of an understatement. This movie will take you on a rollercoaster ride like not many can. Some will look to get off the ride halfway through, but a good majority would turn right around and get back on for another ride.

An impressive directorial accomplishment

Emerald Fennell’s direction of Saltburn is almost as impressive of an accomplishment as her directorial debut, Promising Young Woman, which won her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Her eye for detail in crafting this story is really something special, and she seamlessly blends her direction with the cinematography and acting.

However, it’s fair to ask if Fennell injects elements into the screenplay for the sake of shock value and controversy. That argument can certainly be made, and I won’t fault anyone who thinks so. I felt that a couple scenes teetered on the brink of being unnecessary, but for myself, it all mostly worked well within the world she had created.

Saltburn is a gorgeous film 

This film is absolutely gorgeous; the cinematography is superb, with some mind-blowing shot compositions, including a few upside-down reflection shots. The production design is also impressive, and the house is incredibly beautiful on its own. But combine that with the use of color in the film, such as in the party scene and the pond scene with beach rafts and floats, and you have some striking and contrasting images that are highly impressive.

Time dragged on in the second act

The pacing of the film was a bit lacking in the second act. It began to feel a bit draggy, especially compared to Fennell’s prior film, which was almost fifteen minutes tighter. Losing a few minutes in the editing room might have served this film well.

Closing thoughts on Saltburn

Barry Keoghan’s performance is not to be undersold. While most of it is on the subtle side, you can absolutely revel in it by the finale. But I highly doubt this work will bag him another Oscar nomination. The rest of the cast is good, with Richard E. Grant always being a delightful presence. However, I did think Carey Mulligan was miscast as a punk rock friend of the family.

For better or for worse, Saltburn is a film that makes an impression. It stays with you. It’s been two days since I’ve watched it, and not much time passes before I’m thinking about it some more. Take from that what you will, but for me, that’s a sign that somebody did something right.

With her new film, Emerald Fennell will continue to solidify her reputation as the queen of controversy. Some people will hate it, some will walk out in disgust, but many will laugh, cringe, and thoroughly enjoy their viewing experience. While the film is not as precise as Promising Young Woman, there are plenty of reasons to go for round two with Fennell and feel the Saltburn for yourself.

How to watch Saltburn

Saltburn has been making the rounds on the festival circuit, including the Middleburg Film Festival, the BFI London Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival. The movie will be widely in theaters on November 22, 2023, with a more limited release nationwide the week before.

Your thoughts on Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn

Have you seen Saltburn yet? What did you think?  Join the conversation below, or follow us on X (formerly Twitter) @MoviesWeTexted to continue the discussion.

Looking for more likely award nominees? Check out our review of Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, especially if you’re  fan of Saltburn star Jacob Elordi. If you like stunts and action (and think they should have big awards categories) check out our review of The Marvels.