Following her 2020 directorial debut of Promising Young Woman, the outstanding cutthroat feminist thriller that won her the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay at the 93rd Academy Awards, Emerald Fennell premiered her edgy thriller Saltburn in August 2023 at the Telluride Film Festival. The second film in any filmmaker’s career is quite important and telling; are they a one-hit wonder, or are the talents we witnessed only the tip of the iceberg? Well, for every viewer who felt shocked, unnerved, or creatively inspired by Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, Saltburn promises that and so much more. With Saltburn, Emerald Fennell proves that she came to play and is here to stay. And for that, we are so lucky.
WARNING: Promising Young Woman Spoilers Ahead.
Fennell’s most unique talent is her ability to involve viewers in her stories. She does this at such a deep and skillful level that viewers’ own beliefs and self-perceptions are altered throughout the film. This was first exemplified in Promising Young Woman, during the third-act reveal regarding Bo Burnham’s character, Ryan. Through skillful character construction and development, Fennell built Ryan as the quirky, lovable character (“I’m gonna buy you a bicycle!”) that audiences rooted for alongside their protagonist. But with the sickening reveal of Ryan’s involvement in Cassie’s assault, viewers were forced to face an unnerving reality: anyone is capable of evil. More than a plot twist, it felt like a personal attack, and Fennell did not shy away from integrating this film-audience relationship dynamic into Saltburn.
Saltburn is a story about the uncomfortable journey beyond surface-level perceptions. The film displays a shocking and original depiction of this journey, with Fennell again featuring a third-act reveal that allows audiences to personally experience the film’s message. Viewers will be fed perceptions of characters and situations in the film, and then forced to confront these perceptions with new information, creating an internal struggle based on confusion and shame.
Fennell further plays with the theme of perceptions through the original, peculiar tone she creates in Saltburn. Inside the walls of the Saltburn mansion is an atmosphere of old money, English history, and dark academia. Initially, it feels comfortable, like an atmosphere that audiences have read about, watched, or otherwise experienced before. But as the film progresses, Fennell builds an entirely original atmosphere, explicitly grounded in the cultural reality of the early 2000s, while creating a tone that’s fit for a dystopian, fictional time period; the film features many “common folk” 21st-century references, such as Superbad and “Low” by Flo Rida (featuring T-Pain, of course). By creating such an exciting mixture of genres, time periods, and genre-specific story elements, there really never is a way to predict what’s coming next throughout the film.
Leading the brilliant pack of actors is Barry Keoghan, with what very well could be his best performance to date. Playing Oliver, a meek, anxious, and unpopular university student, Keoghan initially appears to be taking on a similar role to that of his most notable films (The Banshees of Inisherin, The Killing of a Sacred Deer). However, Oliver is soon shown to be a complex, fiercely constructed character that pushes Keoghan past what audiences know and expect from him. Rosamund Pike (Elsbeth) and Richard E. Grant (Sir James) also deliver exceptional performances, perfectly capturing the spirit of the oblivious and absurdly wealthy. Supporting performances from Jacob Elordi (Felix) and Alison Oliver (Venetia) were also a surprising treat, with both actors proving their dramatic acting skills early in their careers.
Though my critiques are few and far between, most stem from genre confusion. Though I appreciate Fennell’s unique combination of genres and tones, I believe that the film features a few awkward, ill-fitting aspects of the mystery/thriller genre that do a disservice to the film and its ability to feel grounded. The first of which is the presence of Duncan, the mysterious butler of the Saltburn mansion. If you picture the stereotypical silent, judgmental butler in an English mansion and the characteristic shadow that follows him around every corner, you have pictured Duncan. For a film with such carefully and uniquely crafted characters, he really stands out like an underdeveloped sore thumb. Tonally similar to this was a sequence at the end of the film in which a character briefly walks us back through the film, explaining how certain events occurred unbeknownst to the viewers, and the other unsuspecting characters. This is a mystery film staple, familiarized by iconic mystery character Hercule Poirot, in his lengthy, gasp-inducing explanations, concluding the Agatha Christie stories. However, it felt out of place for something so tonally different from a Christie mystery as Saltburn, and it underestimated attentive audiences’ abilities to pick up on a more subtle hint.
Emerald Fennell is a force. As a woman in film, you are often seen as an artist who can really only do one thing, and that ‘one thing’ is often to tell deeply emotional, female-focused stories. These stories are often groundbreaking and important, but the problem comes when these artists are underestimated and painted as one-trick ponies, the industry them opting for their male counterparts who can “do it all.” With her directorial debut of Promising Young Woman, Fennell slipped into the industry as a feminist-focused director with an edgy thriller feature that pushed the boundaries. With Saltburn, she took the energy of Promising Young Woman’s unnerving, conversation-stirring suffocation scene and stretched it into a feature-length film. To quote the senior woman walking out of the theater next to me after the screening, Saltburn is a “sick, sick movie.”
Shocked and pleasantly surprised by this film, I, for one, can’t wait to see what’s next.
Score: 4.5 out of 5