At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Saltburn “2023”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Saltburn “2023”

MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Psychological Dark Comedy Thriller/Stars: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, Archie Madekwe, Carey Mulligan, Paul Rhys, Ewan Mitchell, Lolly Adefope, Sadie Soverall, Millie Kent, Reece Shearsmith/Runtime: 127 minutes

I think it’s safe to say that, when it first came onto the cinematic stage all the way back in the infamous year that is 2020, the film Promising Young Woman did more than just prove to be an extremely well-made film that was also capable of inspiring much needed discussion between all of us as people. Rather, it also operated as solid proof that it’s scribe-helmer, one Emerald Fennell, was definitely a distinct singular talent and one whose future cinematic efforts should be met with a degree of excitement and anticipation in equal measure. Perhaps this is why upon the release of the teaser trailer for her second cinematic effort, and slice of cinema I am reviewing for you today incidentally, Saltburn I found myself really excited. Not just because it looked like this was a slice of cinema that was intending to do for the upper class what Promising Young Woman did for other areas of humanity right down to possessing a similar sardonic method to its cinematic madness, but because the film looked like it was aspiring to be a wonderful updating of the gothic thrillers of ol. Having seen the finished product I can definitely say that the latter is the case as this, eventually, does reveal itself to be a gothic thriller that takes the concept of class combat to an extreme that I don’t think I have seen since perhaps 1999’s chilling and brilliant The Talented Mr. Ripley. With that said, the film might be engaging, but it is also sadly is nowhere near as perceptive as it would like you to believe that it is. In all fairness, I do believe that this most assuredly is a film that all but demands repeat viewings in order to fully grasp, but even after only one viewing I can tell you that if this movie wanted the point it ultimately makes to be respected then it definitely would’ve given the buildup to that point the increase in the unease factor it so desperately needed. Even with that in mind though, there is no denying that this IS very much a slice of cinema that will ensure you continue to watch despite (or perhaps because of) all the quirky, ominous, and potent moments that pop up in this and trust me when I say that there are definitely quite a few on display and in more ways than one. Suffice it to say then that it might have its fair share of issues, but with the aid of fairly compelling work both in front of and behind the camera Saltburn is definitely one nefariously depraved, riveting, and bleakly caustic cinematic ride that you should at the very least check out once even if it doesn’t pack nearly as much of a punch to the gut as it could’ve and, given its director, honestly should’ve.

The plot is as follows: Taking us all the way back to the year 2006, Saltburn gets underway by introducing us to a young man by the name of Oliver Quick. A young man who, despite being a new attendee of a distinctly prestigious university known as Oxford, has a bit of a problem. That being that he is more than a slightly introverted dweeby guy who, with the exception of a fellow classmate/math aficionado whose own socialization techniques are far inferior to his own aside, has absolutely zero friends to his name. A bit of a shame because if there is one person who our helpless hero would love to have as a schoolyard chum it would have to be the guy he not only has a hidden degree of admiration for, but who he has been secretly observing from afar since he started at Oxford. A guy by the name of Felix Catton and who, among other things worth knowing, is the incredibly well-to-do campus hotshot who consistently has friends to spend time with and girls who want to be on his doting arm day and night. Of course, in the eyes of our hero, this could never happen since Felix is very much a member of the upper crust of society and he is only there because he was awarded a scholarship. It isn’t long though before Lady Fate decides to give our protagonist a chance to get this guy to be his friend. A chance that takes the shape of, whilst riding around campus one day, we see our hero stumble upon his object of worship with a flat tire and, even worse, is not exactly on time for his respective class. As such, we see our hero sense an opportunity and decide to lend Felix his bike so he can get to class in an attempt to get in his good graces. An opportunity that, against all odds, actually works to the point that it isn’t long thereafter that Oliver is able to slither his way into Felix’s social group. In fact he proves to have done such a great job that it isn’t long until, after telling his newfound friend about his tragic and crumbling life at home, we see Oliver is invited with fairly open arms to spend the summer at Felix’s family manor known as (get this) Saltburn. Yet even though, upon his arrival, we see that our hero might be consistently skeptically received by his friend’s jerkish cousin Farleigh, but he is also treated a lot more warmly by Felix’s sister Venetia and parents Elspeth and James respectively. Of course, it isn’t long before we start to figure out that our hero might just be up to something sneaky. As for what that could be and the effect that it will have on everyone at this luxurious manor estate that is something I think I shall leave for you to discover for yourself….

Now right off, it should be noted that the work done behind the camera here is good yet by no means a spotless cinematic affair. To be sure, the switch from pitch black comedy to riveting thriller does operate quite well here to say nothing of providing further evidence that the director, one Emerald Fennell, does possess quite the skill at ensuring you will remain on the edge of your seat waiting to see how this all plays out. Sadly, the main dilemma that the work done behind the camera is saddled with is that what this film is trying to convey is never really infused on an immersive enough level that it will inspire you to think on it for all that long. Indeed whereas Fennell’s previous cinematic effort Promising Young Woman from 2020 gave audiences quite the hefty analysis on the dynamic between men and women with respect to the topic of sexual assault, this slice of cinema might think it is saying just as much as economic class combat, but it really doesn’t. To be sure, there are instances sprinkled throughout where the film definitely gives off the vibe that Fennell is about to kick things up a notch and showcase for us the motivation for how the concept of status can play a role in how upper-class people engage with other people who aren’t. Yet every time it looks like she is about to, we see that Fennell sadly withdraws and chooses instead to just give us a class dynamic that we as audiences have seen play out more times than we care to remember. A choice that, if I am being honest, really feels like a missed shot on this film’s part since it restrains it from being the cinematic body slam against the insanely wealthy that you can tell it is aspiring to be. No it does not make the whole affair a horrible film, but it also ensures that it is unable to be the movie it wants to be. Making up for this however is the fact that, by and large, the rest of the work done behind the camera is really freaking good here dear reader. For starters, there is no denying that this film is, thanks to the beautiful cinematography work done by Linus Sandgren, not only absolutely gorgeously shot, but is also aided immensely by the fact that it was shot at a legitimate home in England (wonder how much they would charge for a 3-week stay). We also see that the brilliant musical accompaniment by Anthony Willis to say nothing of a top-tier soundtrack contribute magnificently to providing the film with a vibe that reflects the wealth and privilege present via 98% of the characters in this. Now the writing here isn’t bad, but it does feel like something is a bit off. To be sure, the first act of the film does work as we see that, due to the director herself actually being someone who studied at Oxford, her experiences at the iconic university do give the first act a degree of realism. However once the film makes its way to Saltburn, we see that the degree of insanity present in the narrative starts to get to be a bit much. Now in her previous directorial effort, we see that Fennell was able to channel that insanity quite well into the story she wanted to tell whilst also ensuring it gave staying power to certain moments within the narrative. In this film though, whilst there are some fairly out of left field moments that occur, I can’t say for certain that they have the impact that they really ought to given…what exactly occurs. Ultimately though, in terms of behind the camera work, this is a solid film even if it doesn’t work quite as well as it ought to.

Of course, the other component that helps this film work on the level that it ultimately is able to would have to be, far and away, the collection of performances given in front of the camera by this slice of cinema’s undeniably talented cast of players. This starts, without question, Barry Keoghan who is nothing short of incredible in the lead role of Oliver. Indeed Keoghan has shown, be it in The Banshees of Inisherin or The Killing of a Sacred Deer among others, a wonderful talent for playing more than slightly off kilter individuals and as a result has become quite great at playing this distinct type of character. In this slice of cinema however, we see that Keoghan proves he also has the chops to portray someone who, much like Matt Damon was able to with the character of Tom Ripley, can be quite charismatic, albeit in a more than slightly perverse manner, and little by little reveal that in actuality he really is nothing more than an icy psychopath who will stop at absolutely nothing to get who or whatever he has set his sights on obtaining for himself. Suffice it to say that it is one heck of a chillingly good performance from an actor who really has become one of the more underrated talents of his generation. We also see that backing up the top-notch work done by Keoghan is a collection of equally as remarkable work from a truly game support cast of players. For starters, Rosamund Pike (who has long been an underrated talent as an actress even after her remarkable turn as Amy Dunne in 2014’s Gone Girl) is able to make off with every single scene that she is present in with her turn as Felix’s dear ol’ mum Lady Elspeth. A woman who, in addition to being a mile a minute when talking to say nothing of quite derived of purpose, also someone who never seems to run out of either words or biting remarks even when a situation doesn’t look good at all. Besides Pike, we are also treated to a high-caliber performance from the always delightful whenever he pops up in anything Richard E. Grant as Felix’s dad Sir James. Indeed, as portrayed by Grant, Sir James is someone who is polite to a fault yet also delightfully eccentric and definitely makes for another winning performance to be added to his portrayer’s already fairly stacked resume (and yes I do include his goofily antagonistical turn in 1991’s Hudson Hawk in that mix). Of course, I would be completely awry if I didn’t take some time in this section to mention the wonderful work done here by Jacob Elordi who, between his role in this and as Elvis in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, is really beginning to showcase a wonderful range of talent as an actor. I say that because, in his role of the well-to-do and quite popular Felix, Elordi does a fantastic job at giving us a character who yes is more than slightly charming and who cares about his family to be sure, but who also has no qualms about making clear that a significant reason he is so affable let alone charitable toward our hero is because of the fact that there is no cost for him to pay.  Suffice it to say that when you also incorporate into this distinct cinematic blend quality work from such talents as newcomer Alison Oliver in the role of Felix’s more than slightly promiscuous sister Venetia, Archie Madekwe as Felix’s sneering and more than slightly contemptuous of Oliver cousin Farleigh, Carey Mulligan (playing a different character here than she did in Fennell’s Promising Young Woman), Paul Rhys, and Ewan Mitchell among others, it’s clear that this slice of cinema might have its issues, but fortunately the work done by this undeniably skilled group of players definitely helps to make up for at the very least some of them.

All in all and at the end of the day is Saltburn a perfect slice of cinema? Sadly, given the pedigree of the talent involved on both sides of the camera, that is not the case. Having said that however, does that make this the worst film on the individual resumes of any of the talent involved? Oh absolutely not! I mean keep in mind dear reader: cast member in this Richard E. Grant is someone who, at one time, thought Disney’s 2018 Nutcracker misfire, 1997’s Spice World, and 2006’s Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties were all perfectly normal movies that one should make in the course of an acting career. Suffice it to say I think we all know exactly how those played out. All jokes aside dear reader, there is no denying that, with the aid of solid work done behind the camera and delightfully darkly comical work done by a truly powerhouse cast of players with the phenomenal Barry Keoghan leading the way in a performance that is definitely one you have to see in order to believe, this slice of cinema is most assuredly one that had award gold in mind to mine should it be given the chance to do so. The only detriment that really makes me unsure if this is a goal that it will be able to accomplish is the fact that it might be a solid little film, but it also is by no means as great as the caliber of talent involved might lead you to believe it to be. Indeed, rather than give us first and foremost an immersive look at each of our characters to say nothing of what drives them or a fresh look at class combat, this film is one that is content to operate as if Masterpiece Theater on PBS all of a sudden found itself being taken over by the Roy family from Succession whilst they were being paid a long-term visit by Tom Ripley from 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Suffice it to say then dear reader that whilst Saltburn is by no means an outright success, it also is by no means an outright cinematic fiasco either. Something that has been known to happen incidentally quite often when a wonderfully distinct new directorial voice makes their way onto the cinematic scene. Even with that in mind though, this is still one slice of cinema that is definitely intriguing enough to say nothing of well-made and acted that should you get the chance to give it a watch then I definitely recommend it. Just don’t be surprised if after watching it you really find yourself having 2nd thoughts about attending if you ever get an invitation to a summer bash hosted by Elon Musk or rather his British equivalent (whomever that may be). Make of that dear reader what thou will. On a scale of 1-5 I give Saltburn “2023” a solid 3.5 out of 5.