There’s also a fearlessness to Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn,” but it’s in pursuit of a hollow, misguided venture. With elements of Sofia Coppola and Patricia Highsmith, the latest from the Oscar-winning director of “Promising Young Woman” is a gorgeous misfire, a film that looks stunning but ultimately has nothing to say. It’s a movie that twists itself into so many sexually charged knots that it can never untangle, and when it purports to get deep about privilege or even sociopathology, it careens into ridiculousness instead of insight. The excess of “Saltburn” will get it some attention, but that’s about all it’s got, another study in how more is sometimes significantly less.
Getting past the disturbing realization that a film set in 2000 is a period piece that takes place over two decades ago, “Saltburn” centers Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), an awkward student at Oxford University. (It’s worth noting that Fennell went to school there and this project feels like a blend of her experience at the esteemed university with a dash of deconstruction of extreme wealth brought by her work on “The Crown.”) Oliver becomes infatuated with the Big Man on Campus, Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), who is rich, confident, and gorgeous. After he befriends Felix (by being of service to him, which is how rich people make friends), Oliver invites him to come to their palatial estate for the summer, and much decadence and disaster unfolds at Saltburn.
It’s a credit to the mood created by Fennell that it really feels after about the halfway point of her film that every single scene could end in sex or murder. She truly enjoys taking the flaws of these aesthetically and financially blessed people and ripping them apart one by one, revealing how we are all driven by primal needs. But the cringe-inducing behavior on display that really starts with Oliver literally drinking Felix’s very dirty bathwater and somehow gets even crazier feels like hollow provocation. At first, the extreme behavior feels just in pursuit of a good laugh, but what people like Coppola and Highsmith accomplished when they tore down excess illuminated elements of the human condition relatable to all, whereas Fennell’s film just ends up being defiantly silly, stuck in the world of Saltburn as much as its characters.