It’s the moment of truth for Emerald Fennell, whose “Promising Young Woman” established the actor-turned-auteur (last seen playing pregnant doll Midge in “Barbie”) as a formidable new filmmaking talent. Building on the barbed sensibility she established with “Killing Eve,” the writer-director’s zeitgeist-throttling feature debut lured audiences like a bright red candy apple, leaving them with plenty to debate after the cyanide-laced sugar high wore off. But what exactly did that pop provocation promise, in terms of where Fennell’s wicked-sinister imagination might go next? Surely something more satisfying than “Saltburn.”
But first the positive, as the shortcomings will swiftly make themselves apparent: A tall drink of Evelyn Waugh spiked with Patricia Highsmith bitters, Fennell’s sophomore feature boasts a distinctive, splashy look for its demented critique of pomp and privilege among England’s elitist upper class. Picture Brideshead reduced to ashes by Tom Ripley (Saltburn is the name of a terribly posh estate where half the film takes place). Presented in a nearly square Academy ratio that makes DP Linus Sandgren’s garishly saturated colors and bold, Kubrickian visual sense all the more striking, the pitch-black satire announces its defiant slant via a homoerotic opening montage of one Felix Catton (“Euphoria” stud Jacob Elordi), stupid rich and patrician sexy (as in, all the debutantes want to do him).
Felix’s introduction comes courtesy of Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), an instantly pathetic Oxford freshman infatuated with the popular upperclassman. Oliver insists that the story, which is bound to end badly, is more complicated than everyone has been led to believe. Except, it isn’t. The story is actually infinitely more basic than “Saltburn” makes it out to be, and part of the film’s problem is that the ride is far more fun than the all-too-obvious destination. Even more than boogey-men, the 1% has to be the easiest target Fennell could’ve possibly picked, and by the time the Cattons start to get their comeuppance, Felix has long since worn out his welcome (not with them but with us, the audience).
Oliver is a classic example of an unreliable narrator, and because he’s played by Keoghan — a squinty, slightly sinister-looking young actor whose very presence suggests layers of hidden intention — no one’s buying him as an awkward dweeb. Still, Fennell asks us to play along, as the cool (read: rich) kids tease poor Oliver. He’s ridiculed most mercilessly by Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), a relative of the Catton family who attaches himself to Felix like a barnacle. And so a rivalry is born, leading to all kinds of cutting glances between the two — plus some spiteful gossip about Oliver’s drug-addict parents — during which Felix does what he does best, which is beam like the golden trophy he is.
Somehow Oliver intuits that Felix has a way of adopting lost causes, and so he presents himself as such, winning Felix’s favor in a most unconvincing scene involving a flat tire. The movie’s stylized enough to forgive certain contrivances, but that doesn’t excuse Fennell’s preposterous disregard for psychology. As in “Promising Young Woman,” she’s more focused on orchestrating shock attacks on the ruling class (there, it was the patriarchy, while here, it’s the aristocracy, guilty of being blithely oblivious) and can’t be bothered with plausible human behavior.
By the end of the school year, Oliver has finagled an invitation to spend the summer at Saltburn, where he and Farleigh will be treated like needy pets for the family’s amusement. Making excellent use of her opulent location (including an extended tour in which a blasé Felix indicates portraits of “dead rellies” and other priceless props), Fennell paints the Cattons as garish caricatures — the Royal Tenenbaums as Edward Gorey might have sketched them. Fortunately, she casts these roles with such colorful actors that it’s kind of a hoot to see how Rosamund Pike (the ensemble’s MVP as blithe spirit Elspeth), Richard E. Grant (Sir James), Allison Oliver (Felix’s needy sister Venetia) and Carey Mulligan (whom everyone calls “poor dear Pamela”) inhabit characters exaggerated enough to suit the next “Knives Out” sequel.
They’re the sort of shrill, spoiled creatures who pretend to be progressive around their new guest, but can’t be bothered to bite their tongues, even when the target of their latest tirade is within earshot. After one of these gargoyles commits suicide, Elspeth dismissively remarks, “She’d do anything for attention.” The film does not hold life in particularly high esteem, leading to a rather predictable final stretch in which a succession of funerals is called for — plus one entirely uncalled-for sequence in which Oliver strips off his clothes and desecrates someone’s grave. And that might not even be the film’s most outrageous scene, considering what Ollie does with Felix’s scummy bathwater (a scene which reminds how much better “The Talented Mr. Ripley” handled the sexual tension between its titular sociopath and his upper-class prey).
Confronted with a sea of blandly indistinguishable content, Fennell wants to make an impression, embracing the “bizart-house” strategy (pioneered by boundary-pushing A24 movies) of baiting audiences with something they’ve never seen before, and which they’ll be obliged to discuss with others. It’s all part of the meme-ification of movies, and Fennell seems fairly savvy about loading the film with salty one-liners and visual zingers. Such attention-grabbing devices are not enough to raise “Saltburn” to the level of the countless films it resembles, from “Cruel Intentions” to “Six Degrees of Separation.” But why did it have to resemble them at all? Fennell’s debut promised a fearless original voice and style. “Saltburn” certainly has attitude, but nothing new to say.