I recently found myself in a disagreement with a colleague over which 2023 film most thoroughly and messily shits the bed in the third act. She felt the dubious distinction goes to Cat Person, and I’m not unsympathetic to this argument; its oddball climax, entirely tacked on to the (totally sufficient) conclusion of the viral short story, slams the picture into Fatal Attraction territory. But I would argue that the sins of Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn are more egregious, because its bafflingly bad conclusion follows 2/3 of a quite good, and occasionally great, piece of work. If a terrible movie gets worse at the end, it feels inevitable. When a good movie fails to stick the landing, it feels like a betrayal.
This is Fennell’s sophomore feature, after winning the original screenplay Oscar for Promising Young Woman, and it’s stuffed with the kind of brashness such awards can bestow; this is a bold and loud picture, deliberately and ornately provocative. The plotting is nothing new — it’s basically Teorema by way of The Talented Mr. Ripley — and it begins as a fairly formulaic tale of class and caste at Oxford University in the mid-aughts. Our protagonist is painfully shy scholarship student Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), who latches on to handsome, charismatic, ridiculously rich Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi); touched by Oliver’s tales of familial woe, Felix offers to bring him home for the holidays, to his family’s “massive fuck-off castle.”
But there’s a vague sense of darkness burbling, underneath even these standard expositional scenes. The camerawork reflects Oliver’s range of motion; the early scenes are mostly shot within the locked-off limits of the university setting, but the aesthetic shifts once they get to the castle. The camera glides, moving freely through this world of wealth and privilege. First Oliver just observes quietly, strategizing, figuring out everyone’s soft spots and pressure points, and Fennell’s script is carefully putting all the pieces into place — too deliberately and schematically, perhaps, while attempting to distract us with the dirty, faux-punk energy of the filmmaking (and occasionally succeeding). As with Promising Young Woman, she has a good eye and ear, adroitly using light and (especially) shadow to create the appropriately wormy atmosphere, and deploying a tight sound design (the contrast, late in the game, of pounding house music and dead silence is especially affecting).
It’s not breaking any critical ground to classify Keoghan as a peculiar actor; his very presence is unsettling, and his best directors have used that to their advantage. Fennell wisely situates the picture around his weird energy, and he gives himself over to the material — he’s fearless, even when the movie leaves him out to dry. The evolution of the character is impressive as well, from the bespectacled and withdrawn wallflower of the early scenes, for whom it feels like a chore to even exhale, to the easy-breezy interloper of the second hour.
Fennell also avoids some easy traps with the character of Felix, providing the smart ripple of making him a mostly good guy — even when he’s cruel it’s not malevolent, not really. He’s just spoiled. (Elordi’s best single moment comes early; watch the way he just siiiiiiiiiighs over the flat tire.) His family is the same, only demonstrably worse, just a bunch of vapid, terrible rich people, and they’ve never had to be anything more. “You’re so… real,” Felix’s sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) tells Oliver. “I think I like you even more than last year’s one.”
Again, so far, so good. It all feels fairly staid, a British class satire, at least on the surface — and then Fennell goes into goblin mode, exploring the comic (and, occasionally, erotic) incongruity of grimy little sex acts in this refined setting. Promising star Carey Mulligan has a very funny cameo as a leeching hippie chick. As the father, Richard E. Grant makes for a splendid upper-class twit. Oliver, an actor previously unfamiliar to this viewer, is quite good, particularly in a bathtub scene where she tells Oliver exactly what she’s decided she thinks of him. And Pike is perhaps the picture’s MVP, uproarious in her alarming yet oblivious cruelty. As ever, her comic timing is just sharp as a tack.
And then it goes off the rails. A big event hits, around the 100-minute mark, that leaves Fennell with nowhere to go for the rest of the bloated running time, and it’s such a plot-stopper that her attempts to resume the familial satire play as so broad, they verge on cloying — in addition to severely undercutting the genuine emotion of what Keoghan is doing immediately thereafter. They simply can’t coexist, and the rest of Saltburn plays out with similarly jarring whiplash. By the time she gets to the final scene, its full frontal male nudity smacks less of boundary-pushing sensuality than desperation. Instead, it feels like one more gimmick — from a film (and a filmmaker) who’s run out of them.
“Saltburn” is out Friday in select theaters, and in theaters everywhere November 22.