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A Sick and Twisted Tale is Spun in Emerald Fennell's Sophomore Effort 'Saltburn'

"I loved him. But was I in love with him?"

In the year of our Lord 2023, the early to mid-2000s seems like a sufficiently nostalgic era. A time of "Superbad," pooka shell necklaces, and slutty behavior remind people of a simpler time. This period is ripe for exploring taboo relationship dynamics and salacious filmmaking techniques that have stood the test of time. Music and movies of the 1990s and 2000s have clearly influenced writer/director Emerald Fennell, who famously used a rendition of Britney Spears's "Toxic" during a memorable scene in her feature film directorial effort, "Promising Young Woman." The British actor and filmmaker now strikes indelible gold again by using her teenage cultural influences to represent an eat-the-rich satire in "Saltburn."

The film's title references Saltburn, the astounding estate where the devastatingly sexy Felix (Jacob Elordi) and his British aristocratic family live. Raised in wealth by his mother Elsbeth (Rosamund Pike) and father Sir James (Richard E. Grant), Felix returns home every summer from Oxford with a friend to visit his parents, sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), and American cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe). In 2007, an eyebrow-pierced, Livestrong bracelet-wearing Felix returns from university with a new buddy, Oliver "Ollie" Quick (Barry Keoghan).

Things do not go well.

Ollie is anything but charismatic. A loner scholarship student lusting for Felix's good looks and charm, he's the definition of a sidekick. Though he's the picture of a collegiate hetero fratboy, Felix often playfully kisses Ollie on the cheek, establishing a connection with him, and the two grow close despite coming from drastically different worlds. By the time summer arrives, Ollie's home life takes a turn for the worse, and Felix invites his new friend to spend the summer at Saltburn to escape life's stressors.

The sprawling estate might be the setting for most of the movie, but it's a fool's paradise filled with history, demented characters, servants, and everything that Ollie believes is above his pay grade in life. Slowly, it becomes apparent that Ollie has an agenda as he gets comfortable in his new surroundings, slithering his way into the family and learning more about those he reveres. He establishes a flirtatious relationship with Ventia while fawning over Felix from afar. Ollie is never far from the family drama that unfolds, inserting himself into the picture when he's not staring outside the window watching everything come to light. He even finds himself becoming a pseudo-therapist for Elsbeth, a woman unafraid to tell others that she has an aversion to anything ugly.

The rich are a marvel to Ollie, but Felix is always top of mind. The film evolves into a psychological thriller that pits Ollie against every member of the eccentric family, much like "The Talented Mr. Ripley," where Matt Damon battles others for the attention of his new wealthy friend, Jude Law. However, seeing as "Saltburn" takes place in the mid-2000s, Ollie develops more of a "Cruel Intentions" vibe as he examines the nature of his place in the world amongst a class of people who have never feared death or going broke.

"Saltburn" is a weirdly seductive film that tries desperately to show its audience just how raunchy a cinematic journey can get. Aside from the healthy slate of full-frontal male nudity on display, Fennell crosses several boundaries as she breaks her characters out of the confines of predictability. Several scenes go nowhere in a hurry, while others rejoice in their off-the-wall essence. Similar to "Promising Young Woman," Fennell builds a world where her characters aren't fully realized until someone is either killed or sexually assaulted.

But make no mistake in believing that Ollie is a narrator and main character worth trusting. "Saltburn" is clearly influenced by "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Dangerous Liaisons," specifically, right down to certain camera shots and monumental reveals that maintain an aura of mystery surrounding Ollie's intentions. While Felix and family might be disturbed by some of Ollie's antics, the audience gains a bit of perspective with every tangibly vile thing Ollie does or says. In his heart, he is an imposter and a lying liar who lies, playing into the film's themes of class, sex, and power.

"Saltburn" is remarkably adventurous while it excites in its attempts to be groundbreaking. There are several "you have to see it to believe it" scenes that will indeed become watercooler discussion topics. So much so that one patron in the screening I was in exclaimed during a particular scene, "Oh no," as she could predict what would happen next…and not in a good way. The film is evocative and soaks in its own depravity as it progresses. The ending feels a bit out of Fennell's reach, but it accomplishes its goals with a stirring performance from Barry Keoghan.

Emerald Fennell understands what makes people think as she opens up a world unfamiliar to average people. Jacob Elordi may look like a god but plays Felix as a mortal, bringing a male-centric bromance with Ollie to life that leads to a one-sided desire. Their friendship breeds contempt, and peculiar goings-on at Saltburn make for a fascinating watch, but "Saltburn" crosses too many lines and treads satirical stereotypes that fall flat once the climax is reached. Barry Keoghan is at the top of his game as Ollie, while Rosamund Pike delivers every line of dialogue with bitterness and wit. The three become the focus of a movie uncertain of its themes, yet the actors assist in helping "Saltburn" exude confidence and ego.

"Saltburn" might not be as original as the Oscar-winning "Promising Young Woman," but it promises its audience a wild ride and constant twists and turns that disgust and delight.

Ticket Rating: 🎟🎟🎟1/2


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