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Saltburn: Beauty Over Substance

After weeks of hearing some rather interesting things about Saltburn, I knew I needed to check it out for myself. I’m sure many of you have heard people going on about its disturbing scenes, which are definitely an attention getter for the film, but I honestly didn’t know what it was really about or what I was getting into. 

Saltburn takes place in 2006, beginning at the University of Oxford’s campus. We follow the main character, Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), as he struggles to make friends after arriving at the university. He is quickly drawn to the incredibly popular Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) and sets out to befriend him and fit himself into the man’s snobby friend group. Oliver develops quite the obsession with Felix, which, despite the character’s denial of being in love with him, is pretty homoerotic. Despite Felix’s friends not really caring for Oliver, the man himself definitely seems to and genuinely takes an interest in his life. Oliver confides about his difficult family situation, which culminates in Felix inviting Oliver to his house for the summer break.

I’ll begin with my spoiler-free review. Visually, Saltburn is stunning. Aside from the cast themselves being an attractive group, the cinematography was consistently enamoring. All of the actors provide really great performances; while of course Barry Keoghan and Jacob Elordi were wonderful, supporting actors Archie Madekwe (Farleigh Start, Felix’s cousin) and Alison Oliver (Venetia Catton, Felix’s sister) gave particularly brilliant performances. Everyone also had really great chemistry, whether it was romantic/sexual, platonic, or familial. The cinematography and cast earned the film three stars in my book, but unfortunately that was where my interest stopped.

I’ve seen many other reviews discussing the movie’s prioritization of beauty over substance, which was all too accurate. I found myself checking the time frequently to see how much of the movie was left, and I was surprised every time. My knowledge of certain scenes were likely an influence on this, as I found myself waiting for the so-called disturbing stuff to happen, but the film really dragged at the times between them. The plot in itself felt drawn out, and it took a while to feel like the movie was going anywhere.

Now is the time to stop reading if you really don’t want spoilers. 

Foreshadowing tends to be an effective and interesting narrative tool, and the film uses quite a bit, such as Oliver’s conversation with Elspeth Catton (Rosamund Pike) about Pamela’s (Carey Mulligan) relationship with the family and how she may have been lying about her circumstances, which hints at Oliver’s own lying about his family and economic situation. Moreover, in one of the breakfast scenes where Venetia is talking about Percy Shelley’s death and doppelgӓngers, Felix is shown walking past the window behind her, when he’s really sitting next to her at the table, foreshadowing his death later in the film. 

Ultimately, though, I found most of the movie’s “shocking” scenes to be pretty underwhelming. Most of them were just a bit of an uncomfortable watch–and I’m glad I didn’t watch it with my parents–but I wouldn’t call any of it disturbing. I would hesitate to even call this film a thriller, as I found it to be kind of predictable. It’s also listed as a “black comedy,” but the most humor I found was in the awkward, secondhand embarrassment-inducing scenes, which were just hard to watch for me. I wasn’t surprised by any of the deaths, and Oliver’s “reveal” to have been plotting against the family felt incredibly obvious. I will admit that I knew about this going into it, but even if I hadn’t, I’m certain I would have picked up on it early on. I honestly couldn’t tell if the movie was trying to frame it as a twist because it felt so clear, but the way they spelled it all out made it feel like they were expecting the audience to be surprised. 

Overall, I’m glad I watched it to satiate my curiosity, but I’m not sure I would watch it again. If you like weird movies with a great cast and visuals, I would definitely give it a go.

Written by Alec Conwell

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