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The Cinematic Madness of Saltburn: A Movie Review

By: Erica Patton

Movie Poster for Saltburn, Credit: IMDb 

If you use TikTok at all, you may have noticed the rise in popularity of the new film,“Saltburn”. After continuous talk about the infamous "bathtub scene," I knew I had to give it a watch. However, despite having watched the film a few days ago, I’m still not quite sure how to feel about this movie. While the film attempts to delve into serious topics with Shakespearean and Greek mythological adaptations, the storyline utilizes humor and disturbing imagery to make you audibly gasp.  


Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, the psychological thriller/comedy, “Saltburn” sends its audience on a confusing roller coaster with looped themes of obsession, erotic desire, and eating the rich. Set in 2006, at a University of Oxford students, Oliver (Barry Keoghan) and Felix (Jacob Elordi) fall into an obsessive and deranged friendship. Oliver, the straight-A wallflower meets Felix, the tall, conventionally attractive, not so straight-A, rich elite, where he learns that getting in good with the big leagues may do him more good than he thinks. When Oliver’s father suddenly passes away, this leads their budding friendship to Felix’s luxurious family estate in Saltburn, England where Felix offers Oliver a place to stay for the summer. 


As the film shifts its focus to Felix’s family dynamic, there are some signs of cult-like behavior. The family seems eerily close, and Felix’s mother consistently comments on Oliver’s beauty over unnecessary black-tie dinners. We also see that one of Felix’s other friends named Farleigh from Oxford, is already acquainted with his family as well, giving the interpretation that Felix’s family is essentially "recruiting" his peers in their sick and twisted games.

Movie Still of Oliver & Farleigh in Saltburn, Credit: Vulture 

While I am still trying to digest the film's actual plot, Director Emerald Fennell does an incredible job reminding me of other great films that I love. This film has a similar theme to “The Talented Mr. Ripley," and great cinematography like the film “Call Me By Your Name.” In relation to this, “Saltburn” uses a magnificent sense of composition, color, and visuals to enhance the story and appear visually pleasing to the eye. This film also has appropriate pacing, as it established its characters in a meaningful amount of time without feeling too rushed or too slow.  


Along with excellent pacing, the film also includes a relatable protagonist (Oliver) which  brings a new dimension to the film. At the beginning of the film, we see Oliver as an established preppy ‘nerd,’ complete with what one would imagine as a well-dressed and put-together young man complete with glasses and a handful of books. In contrast, Felix plays as our stereotypical, ‘popular’ archetype.  


Oliver, who is at Oxford on a scholarship, fancies the attention and appeal of Felix, and as the film continues, we see Oliver’s style and perception drastically change. As Oliver grows more obsessed with getting close to Felix, we also see his clothes change; he ditches the glasses, wears less preppy clothes, and even adopts a more free-spirited persona like Felix’s. While not everyone has the same experience as Oliver, I think the need for validation, and the want to fit in is an extremely relatable character arc that many viewers can relate to.  

Still of Oliver at the estate in Saltburn, Credit: The New York Times 

The story escalates as viewers watch Oliver's descent into madness as he stays and adapts to the Saltburn estate. While the idea of obsessive friendship remains prevalent throughout the film, the concept of social class standings, specifically those in significantly higher and lower standing also influences the nature of the plot. Without spoiling too much, this film captures the struggles of lower rank while also exposing the more cynical side of wealth.  


While this film will make you laugh, cringe, and question morality all at once, it establishes a well-thought-out story with a deeper meaning that may take a few days to fully process. If the plot goes over your head at first, you can watch it a second time like I did to take in this madness of a movie all over again.  


“Saltburn” is currently streaming on Prime for free with a subscription.  


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