Have you ever felt shocked, confused, and stunned all at the same time? Let’s just say, Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn would do that to you. The movie touches on many themes. But, the plot depends on shock value, doing a disservice to the movie’s storylines and relationships.
Saltburn showcases the desire for power and privilege, and the lengths people will go to achieve that. It follows an Oxford student, Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), and his plan to befriend a popular and rich student, Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). However, this is simply the surface-level storyline. There is so much more to the movie than what meets the eye.
I felt the movie started off quite slow while showing Oliver’s university life and his attempts to fit in at Oxford. He doesn’t have friends and is in isolation most of the time. The movie reaches a turning point when Oliver befriends Felix through a kind act, which Felix rewards by welcoming Oliver into his lifestyle and friend group. This friendship is the core of the movie. The scenes that follow revolve around their relationship and perceptions of each other. Oliver views Felix as a way into the lifestyle he desires. Felix, on the other hand, uses Oliver as a charity case that he occasionally shows genuine compassion for.
After a family misfortune happens to Oliver, Felix invites Oliver to his mansion, Saltburn, for the summer. This is the starting point to all the madness. The rest of the plot takes place at the mansion, including the crumbling of Oliver and Felix’s relationship and the Catton family. This allows the movie to really emphasize the Catton family’s power and influence, as well as its rapid fall. Throughout the movie, sex appeal was the underlying theme. Sexual attraction and obsession was key to numerous plot points. These themes allow the viewer to enter Oliver’s mind, and witness his effect on others.
A running dynamic throughout the film is sexual dominance and its association with power, money, and lust, exemplified through the relationship between Oliver and Felix’s sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver).
Venetia desires Oliver because he masterfully uses her insecurities to give her confidence, providing him a great deal of control over her. The power dynamic between them is very evident and quite brilliantly portrayed. This dynamic doesn’t just exist between Oliver and Venetia, however. Foreshadowing the ending, their relationship shows Oliver’s ability to get under the skin of all the Catton family members. By doing so, he’s able to manipulate them all for his own gain.
The audience is sometimes given a peek at Oliver’s true intentions and personality. One clear-cut incident is Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), Felix’s mother, and Oliver’s conversation about Pamela (Carey Mulligan), a friend that stayed with Catton’s for a while, after dealing with personal issues. Oliver and Elspeth discuss the nature and the content of her life story, with Oliver being the first to doubt Pamela. in their conversation, Oliver says, “if all of it were true.” Because of the similarities between Oliver and Pamela’s personal issues, this scene insinuates that Oliver is lying. Nevertheless, Pamela is eventually forced to leave, even though both were simply the Catton family’s entertainment. I think it’s fascinating how, for majority of the movie, Oliver is portrayed as entertainment for the family. Toward the end, the audience finds out that it was truly the other way around.
An interesting relationship in the film is that between Oliver and Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), Felix’s cousin, who is also a student at Oxford. Farleigh and Oliver mirror each other from the very beginning. Farleigh is financially supported by the Catton family and lives at Saltburn. Oliver and Farleigh’s interactions are not friendly ones, as Farleigh is rightfully convinced that Oliver is deceiving the family. I think it’s intriguing that Farleigh is the only one who views Oliver in his true light. The two of them consider each other to be outsiders and different from the main family, yet both arguably don’t belong. Instead, they compete for acceptance at Saltburn, with Oliver coming out on top.
In my opinion, the movie has an intentional shock factor associated with it. I found it very interesting the first time I watched it. However, the most widely-discussed scenes that displayed Oliver’s obsession in both shocking and sexual ways were just that. When I watched it a second time, I found it boring. No longer having a shock factor to enjoy, the substance of the movie wasn’t enough to keep me intrigued.
Overall, the movie is an entertaining one on the first watch, with twists and turns along the way. It will leave you baffled, shocked, and at a loss for words. It can be found on Amazon Prime.