'Saltburn' review: A self-satisfied guilty pleasure 2
A scene from 'Saltburn.' Prime Video

'Saltburn' review: A self-satisfied guilty pleasure

'Saltburn' is a celebration of Barry Keoghan’s reliability as an actor, fresh from his Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor for 'The Banshees of Inisherin.'
Ralph Revelar Sarza | Jan 14 2024

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

(UPDATED) I was all hyped up to catch "Saltburn" on the day it premiered on Prime Video, but when I confirmed it had this almost square aspect ratio, I immediately closed my laptop. You know, square usually means you’re in for some artsy, hippy stuff — and usually, I’m all about that — but, at that particular moment, it just wasn’t clicking for me. After some time, when I felt I was in the right mood, I picked up where I left off, and much to my delight, I had fun watching it.

Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, "Saltburn" follows Oliver (Barry Keoghan), a socially awkward Oxford University student obsessed with his popular and aristocratic classmate, Felix (Jacob Elordi), who invites him to spend the summer at their sprawling family estate.

Initially fixated on Oliver’s obsession with Felix, the film fearlessly unveils a compelling exploration of homoeroticism. Rather than a mere examination of sexual proclivities, the homoerotic elements serve as a vehicle to convey Oliver's profound attraction to the aristocratic lifestyle rather than a simple scrutiny of his sexual preferences. The allure lies in the power play, with eroticism acting as a symbolic representation of the desire to be owned and consumed by the privilege associated with the upper class.

However, when Oliver fails to act on his apparent lust for Felix, he shifts his focus to coveting his family’s wealth. The film's transition toward showcasing the quirks of the rich and dissecting the class system from the perspective of an out-of-place plebeian not only highlights the opulent's obsessions but also illuminates the pervasive interest of everyday people like us in the idea of living the good life. Oliver is like our stand-in, representing that aspiration.

This approach to character study, particularly in delving into Oliver’s persona, is intriguing. It seems to differ from the commonly held idea that successfully understanding socially and psychologically complex characters requires openly revealing the motivations that drive their actions.

However, comprehending Oliver doesn't demand excessive intellectual effort. After Felix’s death, his sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver), confronts the creepy outsider — an act that sheds light on why Oliver is behaving the way he is:

“I think you’re a moth. Quiet, harmless, drawn to shiny things. Banging up against the window, just desperate to get in. Well, you’ve done it now. You’ve made your holes in everything. You’ll eat us from the inside out.”

Speaking of eating, "Saltburn" also strives to evoke discomfort through particular scenes, two of which interpret the phrase "eat the rich" quite literally. I didn’t really find those scenes to be shocking. They are just a bold way of pointing out how messed up things are in society, making us think about the huge gap between the privileged and the rest of us.

"Saltburn" is a celebration of Keoghan’s reliability as an actor. Fresh from his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor nomination for "The Banshees of Inisherin," the versatile Irish actor adeptly showcases his knack for portraying idiosyncratic characters, a talent we previously witnessed in many of his portrayals, such as his memorable role as a creepy spaghetti aficionado in "The Killing of a Sacred Deer."

Fennell, having previously directed Carey Mulligan in "Promising Young Woman," once again collaborated with the acclaimed actress in this film. Here, the former had crafted a character for Mulligan that, despite her limited screen time, captivated me to the point where I found myself wishing she had stayed longer than what could be considered an overstayed welcome.

Rosamund Pike delivers a phenomenal performance, punctuated by a memorable line that could arguably elevate "Saltburn" to instant classic status: "I was a lesbian for a while, you know, but it was all a bit too wet for me in the end."

Despite its flaws, "Saltburn" completely drew me in. The social commentary and character study, though not excessively contemplative, have this unique ability to make you reflect on your own psyche rather than just the characters’. Saltburn is that film with a knowing grin, bracing for polarized reception before hitting the screen. It’s a calculated bait radiating an irresistible self-satisfaction, and I’m unapologetically caught in its mesmerizing grip.

Ralph Revelar Sarza is a metadata development specialist at The Big Dipper Digital Content and Design, Inc., an ABS-CBN company. This review was originally published in the author's blog, “WALPHS.”