Monday, November 27, 2023


 by Rob DiCristino

The Untalented Mr. Ripley

Major spoilers ahead.

By the time Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is prancing naked around Saltburn, the sprawling estate that was until recently the home of schoolmate Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) and generations of landed ancestors before him, we’re well beyond wondering how much writer/director Emerald Fennell is in on her own wry, smirking jokes. The dizzying speed with which Oliver has ingratiated himself with Catton’s parents (Richard E. Grant’s Sir James and especially Rosamund Pike’s Lady Elsbeth) would be remarkable all on its own, but there’s a deep, almost unintentional uneasiness to his triumph. It’s almost as if Fennell is daring us to challenge the reality of her un-reality, to question whether this constructed recollection is just another manipulation, another attempt to so thoroughly shock and awe Oliver’s audience — and, by extension, her own — that we stop worrying about the what, the why, or the how-the-hell-is-this-even-possible. It’s a captivating challenge, at first, but the further we dig into that un-reality, the less it holds up to reasonable scrutiny.
Set one summer in the early aughts and framed in suffocating 1.33:1 — perhaps meaning to evoke Polaroids or home movies of the age but ultimately undercutting some remarkable work from cinematographer Linus Sandgren — Saltburn chronicles Oliver’s ascent from scholarship outcast to choice plaything of the rich and famous. After spending most of a fall semester alone in his Oxford dormitory, Oliver strikes up a friendship with the much richer, much more handsome and popular Felix that quickly earns him an invitation to the Catton homestead. That an ethereal Adonis like Felix would simultaneously take pity on Oliver and manipulate his ignorance to make his practiced swagger look more casual and incidental is no surprise; Oliver is counting on that. Oliver, we discover, knows exactly what he’s doing, exactly how to make each member of the Catton clan feel more superior by comparison, especially Felix’s American-raised cousin Farleigh Start (Archie Madekwe), whose deep insecurity about his own position in the family makes him the perfect competition.
And then there’s Felix’s bulimic sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), who immediately smells something on Oliver that separates him from the usual crop of seasonal distractions who tend to follow her brother home from school — “I like you better than last year’s one,” she tells Oliver over dinner, foreshadowing a midnight rendezvous that he’ll use to further accentuate his outsider credentials. A civilian like Oliver — misbegotten child of drug addicts, or so he claims until a thudding and obvious late-game reveal — would overstep with his benefactor’s sister, we think. He would lack the social graces of his betters, and that clumsiness would make the Cattons’ impenetrable self-satisfaction that much stronger. But Oliver uses that arrogance to slowly poison each one of them in turn, setting forth a catastrophic chain of events that leaves only Elsbeth, utterly naked without the daily diversions of the leisure class, between him and his ultimate goal. It’s all been a ruse, a game. Oliver’s sociopathic greed has brought imperial, insatiable privilege to its knees.

Saltburn is a celebration of that sociopathy, a gaudy orgy of skin, sweat, and sun that hopes to provoke and seduce as ruthlessly as its murine mastermind. Fennell’s compositions are first rate, as are the performances: Pike steals the show as the matriarch, an aging debutante who insists with aplomb that she “never wanted to know anything.” Elordi is the ideal Hot Dummy, an impossibly-proportioned coverboy with just enough brewing under the surface to suggest that there’s a journal full of repulsive poetry tucked somewhere under his bedsheets. Keoghan remains his generation’s most chameleonic performer, a face at once impish and imposing, handsome and unnerving depending on which way the light is hitting. He’s fearless in Fennell’s hands, literalizing Oliver’s orgiastic lust with the kind of reckless abandon that will give even the most licentious viewers a few new bits — girthy ones, at that — to chew on. He and Fennell work overtime to make Saltburn the most incendiary thriller of the year, an over-the-top circus of indulgence and exasperation.
But while Fennell excels at crafting characters who belly-flop headfirst into their human failings with perverse delight, her sophomore effort suffers from that same dramatic inertia and lack of creative ingenuity that sunk Promising Young Woman. We’re willing to accept Saltburn — and, indeed, celebrate it — as a gaudy successor to The Talented Mr. Ripley or Single White Female provided it acknowledges those films’ influence before deepening their themes or expanding on their narrative eccentricities. Instead, Saltburn is less a successor than it is an abbreviation, a film as ignorant and self-satisfied as the oblivious nobility it purports to skewer. Oliver’s grand design is never seriously challenged, nor are the depths of his desires ever effectively defined. There are flashes, of course — Keoghan is expert at shifting gears mid-scene depending on the target and method of his seduction — but Fennell never makes cinematic hay out of any of it, failing to articulate Saltburn’s satirical intent as voraciously as she does its audacious — but ultimately empty — imagery.

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