An update of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” set in the mid-aughts, “Saltburn” is deliciously, wickedly mean—seductive and often surreal—with lush production values and lacerating performances. As writer and director, Fennell clearly intends to amuse and provoke, and she achieves both of those goals for a long time. But even more so than in “Promising Young Woman,” she frustratingly wobbles the landing. “Saltburn” hangs around for about ten minutes longer than it should, holding our hands and walking us through the lead character’s schemes when a tantalizing sense of ambiguity would have been much more powerful.
Barry Keoghan gives a deeply unsettling performance as Oliver Quick, a scholarship student at Oxford University who arrives as a freshman and, in time, ingratiates himself with the popular clique. Possibly dangerous weirdos are Keoghan’s bread and butter, as seen in films like “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”; here, he shifts subtly and seamlessly to be whoever he must from moment to moment. Specifically, he sets his sights on Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), a gorgeous and godlike aristocrat who moves through the world with cool ease and an almost naïve sense of noblesse oblige. Needy and creepy, Oliver wants to be with him but also wants to be him, and the patience of his sociopathic long game is impressive.
Elordi is even more alluring here than he was as Elvis Presley in “Priscilla,” and it’s easy to see why men and women alike fall all over themselves for him. Among them is “Gran Turismo” star Archie Madekwe as Felix’s queer cousin, Farleigh; a bit of an outsider himself, he’s naturally suspicious of Oliver’s intentions as he fiercely protects his spot among the cool kids. Madekwe has a way with a bitchy, blasé aside, his delivery a perfect fit for Fennell’s material.
All these tensions and manipulations come to a slow boil over the summer at Saltburn, Felix’s sprawling family estate. The tour he gives the awkward Oliver upon his arrival is particularly well-paced, and the droll way Fennell introduces the rest of Felix’s privileged family prompts wave after wave of laughter. Rosamund Pike is an absolute scream as Felix’s glamorous mother, Elspeth, a former model with a flair for melodrama and casual cruelty. Richard E. Grant is sweetly shallow in an almost childlike way as Felix’s father, Sir James. Alison Oliver is Felix’s chicly tragic sister, Venetia; her incisive, third-act bathtub monologue is a killer and among the film’s highlights. And “Promising Young Woman” star Carey Mulligan returns in a quietly hilarious supporting role as the family’s houseguest, Pamela (or as she’s credited, “Poor Dear Pamela”), who’s such a narcissistic drip, she has no clue she’s long overstayed her welcome. And, of course, there’s Farleigh, who sees through everyone and everything but would never dare jeopardize his position.