Our Thoughts On: Saltburn
If Emerald Fennell can do one thing, it’s make a movie that you can’t stop talking about. Back for her sophomore feature, the COPY team and contributors share their thoughts on Saltburn.
By THE COPY TEAM
From the trailers, I thought Saltburn was going to be a classic "do I want to be him or do I want to be with him?" storyline and potentially the closest to a The Secret History adaptation we'd ever get... And that is certainly NOT what this film was. It was a confusing mess of a story, but it was a hot mess that I couldn't look away from. Barry Keoghan gives his all for a script that doesn't make sense on paper but reminds us that he is the freakiest freak in Hollywood (complimentary). And even after I say all of this, I kinda want to see it again—maybe even make a pilgrimage to see the tub, currently at the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn? So credit where credit is due.
I haven’t stopped thinking about Saltburn since I've seen it—it’s like a deliciously sore tooth ache after gorging yourself on a whole Milk Bar cake in one sitting. However, a lot of my thoughts are plagued by what didn’t work or felt unjustified rather than what did work well in the film. There’s one scene where two characters argue over the importance of style versus substance in a response essay, and I found that scene pivotal to how I feel about the movie. It’s stylish, sexy, colorful, and absolutely feral—but at the end of the day, I found the substance lacking. I wanted more plot holes filled and more clarity for certain scenes (yes, those scenes) to hit harder. However… Am I planning my second viewing as we speak? Yes. Has “Murder on the Dance Floor” been stuck in my head for entire days? Absolutely. Is being entranced by this film so bad it’s good or so good it’s bad? Hard to say. And yes—I did walk in thinking this movie was just an artsy film about friendship…..
I love how Emerald Fennell’s camera lens traces Jacob Elordi’s body like we’re used to seeing male directors film beauties like Catherine Deneuve or Brigitte Bardot… He’s the “male fatale,” and at the end of the day, we’re all Barry Keoghan. The shots of Barry and Jacob asleep in bed or sitting in the tub are deliciously confusing (who is who?), but by the end, the mix-up of bodies feels intentional, a way of showing just how enmeshed they’ve become and how one identity plunders, pillages, and consumes the other. In one scene, Barry is told by a member of the upper crust that he’s just a moth to the flame, drawn to shiny things. Saltburn turns his obsession into a full-on conflagration, and as an audience member in a time of rampant inequality, I never tire of the mantra to “eat the rich” no matter how flimsy the premise may be. It’s Talented Mr. Ripley x Persona x Revenge of the Nerds (with a splash of American Psycho) for 2023 and, as one friend said as we left the theater, “I’ll never look at a bathroom drain the same way again.”
I love weird films. I’ve found that the best experiences I’ve had in a theater were the ones where I left both challenged and entertained. After the credits rolled on Saltburn, I left entertained (I think?) and challenged (but not in a good way!). This film has all the makings of what I love in a film: beautiful visuals, an inspired cast, and creative needle drops. But ultimately it lacked substance. I struggle to pinpoint the “why” of the film. By the end, I didn’t feel connected to anything or anyone. I wanted to care, but the film didn’t seem too concerned with getting me to care. Nothing felt earned. It was too caught up with providing shock and awe. Ultimately this film left much to be desired, but somehow I can’t stop thinking about it? I’d be interested in seeing how I feel about it on a second watch, but I fear that I might end up loving it? I don’t know!
Earlier today, I texted a friend about Saltburn, saying, “It literally could’ve been a good movie if it made any sense.” Although the last 20-or-so minutes are super entertaining, they undo essentially everything the rest of the movie has set up. The central dynamic is unraveled—the passion is turned methodical, the obsession is turned strategic, and the ogling loses its sexiness. Or at least it’s all called into question. After the main character’s big plan is revealed, I had so many questions about when he began this plot, what his goals were, if they shifted throughout the movie, or if he always wanted to end up where he ends up. In terms of satire and critique, the dialogue is sharp and the performances are great. I laughed and I gasped, but the movie really has no teeth, especially by the end. I felt similarly about Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, although I liked Saltburn much better. I’ve been recommending that people go see it, because it is lots of fun, and I think this is a year for remembering that movies can be fun.
I don’t think this movie is all that GOOD, but it is FUN. I laughed, I squirmed, I gasped—I had no epiphanies. Saltburn is like a fancy cake that falls apart when you try to take it out of the pan. It acts like a critique of the rich, but in the end, Emerald Fennell paints Barry Keoghan’s interloper as the snake in the grass. As confounding as this was, I didn’t turn to Fennell for scathing class analysis—I was mostly here for Jacob Elordi and Barry Keoghan, two actors I love who carry the film. Saltburn boils down to an empty vessel serving us Elordi’s preternatural gorgeousness and Keoghan’s unnerving intensity. The script didn’t give me enough about Oliver (Keoghan)’s motives. His crimes are more interesting—and human—when they’re a reaction to the object of his desire only attending to him out of pity.
What most impressed me about Saltburn was Fennell’s ability to direct the juiciest of acting moments despite a lack of motive for most characters in the script. Alison Oliver’s moth monologue was delivered like her life depended on it. Carey Mulligan provided so much dimension in a few lines that I wanted another movie about Pamela. Elordi’s delivery of “black tie” was impeccable. I wish whatever these actors were working with internally was a bit more fleshed out in the plot.
Saltburn introduced so many potentially psychologically fascinating characters and dynamics only to completely undermine them in the third act with the world’s most unnecessary plot twist. I think it would have been a much better movie if it hadn’t tried to be more clever than it needed to be just for the sake of an audience gotcha or social media buzz. That said, this has probably the most inspired female-gaze photography since Kathryn Bigelow blessed the world with Point Break in 1991, so I can’t say I’m mad!
SHANNON LEE BYRNE
Upon first watch, I didn’t mind Saltburn’s plot holes or the sloppy flashback recap that covered the obvious bits yet left my questions unanswered. It was beautifully shot with stunning imagery and interesting camera work, and Barry Keoghan gave the performance of the century, captivating us all. Jacob Elordi, Alison Oliver, and Rosamund Pike also did not disappoint. The final scene may forever be burned in my memory—not for the nudity, but rather for the brilliance of the sync placement. I’m curious to watch it again and see if it was the shock appeal that left me feeling like I just partook in something brilliant. With time, that feeling has faded, and I’ve found myself thinking more about how my generation is making today’s art, placing our early-2000s nostalgia at the forefront of media. All in all, I think Emerald Fennell did a wonderful job making something memorable that will keep us guessing—whether or not it makes sense feels unimportant.
I went into Saltburn weary, because I felt like Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman lost command of the plot in favor of a lot of sensationalism (and she played the worst character on The Crown, so my biases aren’t leaning fairly anyways). But I think my reservations were right on the money, as Saltburn is marked by a similar lack of balance between aesthetics and story. And yet, I can’t remember a movie in the last 10 years that has stuck with me so immediately?? I went into it for, of course, Jacob Elordi—because Priscilla floored me—and knew that Barry Keoghan was going to deliver a hauntingly solid performance. And both men shine, almost to the point where they alone save the film completely. Fennell understands how to make a beautiful picture, and anyone who isn’t willing to at least acknowledge that Saltburn is the best-shot film since Aftersun or Past Lives is probably majoring in being a hater. But, for all of its faults (and there are many), Saltburn aims to shock and awe—and it hits the mark at every instance, for better or for worse. By the film’s end, I was asking the same questions as everyone (“Why did Felix die first?” “What does Fennell want us to think about the rich?” “Did she watch Parasite and think the upper class were the heroes?”), and I think that’s the mark of good cinema regardless. When I left the theater after Oppenheimer or even Asteroid City or, more recently, The Holdovers, I wasn’t asking questions. That’s not to say that those movies aren’t good. In fact, they’re great! But, if a movie sticks with you—be it because of an Oscar nominee dancing naked to the greatest club song ever in a mansion he just inherited for being a quirked-up little psychopath, or whatever—then it’s done some good. Saltburn is far from perfect, but it’s fantastic. The plot drops out in the middle and the ending feels rushed, as if Fennell wasn’t even sure what she wanted to convey when it was all said and done. But Elordi and Keoghan are quite literally on the precipice of uber-stardom (Keoghan is, frankly, nearly there from an acting place; Elordi is on his way), and the way Fennell films them both is devastating, enchanting, and unforgettable.
I think the “seduction” scenes perfectly encapsulate my gripes with this movie. They are attempts to be shocking, but fall extremely flat when viewing them as pieces that help the film to work as a whole. The first time Barry “seduces” someone (“I’m a vampire”), it is supposed to be titillating and salacious. Rich girl, poor boy. Oral sex on a bench. Period blood. Ohh how wilddd, we’re supposed to think. And in the moment, sure! But the problem is that crazy never develops into interesting. Oliver instructs Valencia not to get up from the table, but the next day she ends up leaving anyway. And absolutely nothing comes out of the second seduction scene either. Oliver worms his way into Felix’s bed only for Felix to act exactly the same as he’d been acting before, making this another failed seduction—odd and lame. But what’s worse is that Fennell thinks she’s created some momentum. She believes that she’s stacked these “risque” scenes well enough to have built a good foundation for the grave scene to stand firm. Unfortunately, however, she miscalculated, and so the scene crumbles. It is so clearly made-to-be perverse. I fail to believe Oliver is feeling anything at all in this moment. Neither love nor hate for Felix, for anyone around him really. This story seemed to be teasing, promising even that the payoff would be worth it. But after it ended, I was only thinking: “Hm, a juicy word that could’ve been a poem, a slab of clay that could’ve been a mug.” Exciting ideas that were not nourished enough to grow. Fennell says this story centers on love, but I must be still stuck in the maze’s outskirts, because I cannot seem to find that center no matter how hard I try.