• Tue. Feb 27th, 2024

Movie Curiosities

The online diary of an aspiring movie nerd

Emerald Fennell broke out in a big way with Promising Young Woman, a film that racked up significant critical praise and Oscar recognition even despite how controversial it was. Though I certainly had my issues with the film, there could be no doubt that Fennell got her point across. From start to finish, Promising Young Woman was uncompromising and blunt as a bulldozer in its agenda as a feminist rape revenge picture.

Saltburn is the exact opposite. It’s a slippery film about mercurial characters, a slow burn built to keep the audience guessing until the pieces finally slam together in that bloody third act. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take it from the top, shall we?

Barry Keoghan plays Oliver Quick, a new student at Oxford coming up from the suburbs of some nowhere town called Prescott. Though Oliver is clearly intelligent, he’s a social misfit who can’t quite find his niche among his classmates.

Enter Felix Catton, played by Jacob Elordi. Felix is the wealthy son of a British lord, the kind of suave and handsome socialite who can charm his way into anything and could get anyone of any gender into bed. As the first act unfolds, a series of suspiciously improbable events bring Oliver closer and closer into Felix’s social orbit. Long story short, the school year is over by the end of the first act and Oliver gets an invitation to spend his summer break with Felix and his family at their eponymous castle. Hilarity ensues.

It’s difficult to understand the relationships between characters, and even harder to explain them. As the characters keep running circles around each other, it gets harder to figure out what they want, who’s playing who toward what end, or whether there’s any subterfuge at all and they really are that superficial. The vague motivations mean the plot is likewise opaque through most of the runtime. Whether this is frustrating or intriguing will vary wildly between viewers.

It certainly makes a difference that the whole cast is going HAM. Thank the gods we have Keoghan so we don’t have to put up with Ezra Miller. Elordi proves himself a viable alternative to Timothee Chalamet, something we desperately needed. Alison Oliver makes her film debut as Felix’s sister Venetia, and she’s utterly captivating to watch. All three of these performances are so sexually charged — augmented by some grossly disturbing imagery — it’s anyone’s guess as to whether they want to fuck each other or kill each other.

I’d be remiss not to mention Archie Madekwe in the role of Farleigh. He’s a distant relative who got scooped up out of the gutters to live in luxury at Saltburn. Compare that with Oliver, a peasant who got lucky enough to charm his way into a summer at Saltburn. Farleigh is upset with this for obvious reasons, but it’s an open question as to what the both of them are willing and able to do about each other.

Then we have Felix’s parents, played by Richard E. Grant and Rosamund Pike. “Eccentric to the point of possibly dangerous” is well within the proven range of both actors, and they’re having a great time playing to those strengths. More importantly, as the film unspools, it becomes increasingly clear that these two are crucially dependent on their capacity for denial. They have a deep-seated need to pretend that everything is fine, nothing is out of the ordinary, and anything unexpected or bad simply doesn’t exist. Even so, their capacity for denial is not unlimited. Though it does take a lot to burst their bubble, which makes it all the more explosive when the dam finally breaks.

Oh, and Carey Mulligan gamely pokes her head in for a small yet crucial supporting role. Mulligan basically plays a pity case, an on-again/off-again drug addict whom Felix’s mother keeps around for her own amusement and to feel like she’s making a difference. What happens to her and how the family reacts is quite telling, let’s leave it at that.

There are limits as to how much I can say about the themes without spoilers, but this is absolutely a film about socioeconomic class. My personal favorite example is the karaoke scene, in which the wealthy spoiled twits botch popular songs like anyone else does at karaoke; but they do it in fancy tuxes and dresses, with a stern scary butler (Duncan, played by Paul Rhys) holding the songbook, and they pick wildly inappropriate songs just because they can. (For instance, a drunk fat pasty white guy in a tux singing “Low” by Flo Rida. That just ain’t right.)

These characters are all short-sighted and self-absorbed to a fault. They’re incapable of taking pretty much anything seriously, so determined to live in their own perfect world and ignore anything uncomfortable that they don’t see their own downfall coming until it’s too late. That’s very much the point of the movie.

Felix and Venetia and all the others have this glamour about them, but what happens when they’re in a situation beyond anything their charm or money can affect? How strong and smart and insightful are they really, when the chips are down?

The questions are especially pertinent with Oliver around. Lost in their own perfect world and their delusions of invulnerability, the Cattons (except of course for Farleigh) accept Oliver as one of their own, and he’s all too happy to take the luxuries and privileges they give him. But is he really one of them? After all, this is a young man who didn’t grow up with the mindset or the excesses that the Cattons take for granted. If he wanted to, Oliver might be in a position to test the Cattons in ways they’re hopelessly unequipped for. It could potentially break the family, and it might even break each individual character on a mental/emotional/spiritual level. But then, maybe this is a system that needs breaking.

In case it isn’t clear enough, so much of this movie hinges on the payoff. It’s all about laying the clues and breadcrumbs, letting the tension build as the house of cards gets taller, waiting for the third act to bring it all crashing down. Luckily (unlike Promising Young Woman, *cough cough*), this is one time when the gamble pays off and the ending works superbly well. It’s a third act that ties everything together in a way that adequately resolves the character arcs and sells the themes of the movie while keeping every last character totally unsympathetic. Brilliantly done.

Saltburn will be a controversial one. It’s a highly disturbing and opaque movie, loaded with unlikable characters and weighed down by a plot that doesn’t really kick into gear until the third act. All of this is what makes the movie so powerful, and I expect it’s what will also justifiably send audience members away in droves.

The good news is, it’s only two hours and change. Not an unreasonable investment in time. So if you’ve got an interest in headier fare and you’re willing to take a chance on a slow burn with grotesque imagery, this is definitely worth a try.

By Curiosity Inc.

I hold a B.S. in Bioinformatics, the only one from Pacific University's Class of '09. I was the stage-hand-in-chief of my high school drama department and I'm a bass drummer for the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers. I dabble in video games and I'm still pretty good at DDR. My primary hobby is going online for upcoming movie news. I am a movie buff, a movie nerd, whatever you want to call it. Comic books are another hobby, but I'm not talking about Superman or Spider-Man or those books that number in the triple-digits. I'm talking about Watchmen, Preacher, Sandman, etc. Self-contained, dramatic, intellectual stories that couldn't be accomplished in any other medium. I'm a proud son of Oregon, born and raised here. I've been just about everywhere in North and Central America and I love it right here.

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