Mladen and Del review ‘Saltburn’

Image courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios.

“Saltburn” starring Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick, Jacob Elrodi as Felix Catton, Rosamund Pike as Elspeth Catton, Alison Oliver as Venetia Catton, and others. Directed by Emerald Fennell. 2 hours, 13 minutes. Rated R. Streaming on Amazon Prime.

Plot summary: College freshman Oliver Quick discovers his working class roots don’t pair well with the monied elite of Oxford. He becomes obsessed with an upperclassman, the aristocratic Felix Catton, whose charm and status are qualities Oliver covets. The two become friends, and when Oliver’s father passes away Felix invites him to spend the summer at Saltburn, the family’s country manor. Once there Oliver meets the other members of Felix’s eccentric family and as the summer unfolds, Oliver is drawn deeper and deeper into their dysfunction, with unexpected and shocking consequences.

Are there spoilers in this review: Yes, numerous spoilers. Beware.

Mladen’s take

Del is on a tear. He’s now forced me to watch two pointless movies in a row, but the pointlessnesses are different.

“Leave the World Behind” is a vague film about the end of civilization. Del’s latest choice, “Saltburn,” is a horrifying, insouciant movie about attraction to hedonistic wealth.

Because I wasted a lot of irretrievable time watching “Saltburn,” I intend to incinerate as little of it as possible to write this review. So, Del, here’s the movie’s plot: “Saltburn” takes more than 2 hours to reveal an impossible grift. Amid those 120 minutes plus is a lot of shock-value-only imagery. The Top 3 are: Ollie slurping draining bathtub water into which Felix ejaculated; Ollie engaging Felix’s sister Venetia while she menstruated, including tasting the blood and making her taste it; and Ollie humping Felix’s newly dug grave. I have zero idea of why any of those were needed to illuminate the fact Ollie is pulling off a squalid hustle.

I should’ve watched “Saltburn” backward starting with the credits. The credits would’ve instructed me to stop watching the film immediately. How? Why? Because the movie had an “intimacy coordinator” as part of the production staff. Holy fuck. An intimacy coordinator. Is humanity getting so stupid, un-self-sufficient, unnatural, and unplugged from reality that we are unable to have sex, even pretend sex, without a coach? Blanket warning, dear reader. Never watch a film that uses an intimacy coordinator.

None of the characters, barring one, are likeable or dislikeable. They’re just gross. Gross frivolous or gross manipulative. Worse, the only person we get to see naked is Ollie. The only interesting character is Elspeth. Her naïve haughtiness often manifests as quips about human behavior. They are amusing. I also like the name. The next pet fish I buy I’m naming “Elspeth.”

“Saltburn” fails as social satire. There’s no moral. None of the soulless shits pitted against each other one way or another in this film are poor with the goal of toppling inherited wealth. This film is about a bourgie boy taking on rentiers. Everyone in the film is evil incarnate, so I never cared what happened to any of them.

“Saltburn” is banal dystopian melodrama. The setting is billionaire land under attack by a middle class college student. Who cares? I know billionaires are dicks. I know people are avaricious. I know inheritance should be outlawed. Worse, the score and soundtrack are unremarkable. Nothing radiated from the movie that I will add to my playlist.

I’m slashing a big-ass F across the screen for this movie. And, it’s not a good F, not the kind that should draw viewers because the movie is so bad it’s good. This is a straight-up shitty movie, a derelict movie, an unneeded movie like “The Human Centipede” or “Hostel.”

Del better dislike “Saltburn” wholeheartedly or I’ll sic Ollie on him.

And, yeah, I’m picking the next film to review.

Del’s take

I had to pause in my viewing of “Saltburn” to suppress a giggle. A mental image came to mind and wouldn’t go away.

When I was a kid I had a parakeet that would sit on my finger and chirp – until I ventured too close with my nose. The parakeet seemed to take this as an act of aggression – its eyes would bulge, the feathers atop its head would stand up like the inflamed strontium 90 scutes along Godzilla’s spine, and suddenly the formerly happy bird would lunge in a fit of psychotic avian rage and tear into my nostril until tears squirted from my eyes. THAT is the image – of a lunatic parakeet punishing my effrontery by surgically altering my nose – that burned into my brain as I pictured Mladen reacting to the greasy slab of undercooked kidney whale-snot pie that is “Saltburn.” It was I, after all, who suggested we review the movie. It will be I who becomes the target of Mladen’s wrath. And after the bathtub scene I expect he’ll be ready to do more harm to my face than all the parakeets in Australia.

“Saltburn” is a spectacle – a decadent, vulgar, rakish, profane, hilarious, outrageous spectacle – with no redeeming qualities or characters. But after a few minutes it is impossible not to watch, and I may end up adding it to my DVD collection, not because it is good but because it is so very, very bad.

“Saltburn” is class decadence at its best, or worst, depending on how you digest these matters. We as Americans can’t appreciate the British concept of aristocracy because we have no class. Class in America is determined by money and any clod can get his hands on money, to thereafter festoon his mansion with golden-clad penises and his book gallery with Korean schoolgirl porn. History means nothing to a country that is constantly tearing itself down and rebuilding itself,

But to a country that cherishes its history and traditions, issues of breeding, manners and class are everything, and therein lies the essential thrust of “Saltburn.” It is not just a visitation to the world of the other half. It’s a condemnation of aristocracy, yes, but more so the desire we commoners feel for those gilded, golden rules.

Young Oliver – a Dickens archetype if there ever was one – becomes whatever he must to achieve his goal of being baked into the upper crust. Along the way he loses whatever he was supposed to be in life, a fact that troubles him not a bit. He has no soul. The object of Oliver’s desire, Oxford school chum Felix, is the anti-aristocrat, an amiable guy without an ounce of self-awareness who breezes through life as the dude who’s cool without trying, the good-looking, sexy, shallow-but-not-evil rich boy who does not buy his shirts at the British equivalent of Target.

The other members of Felix’s family are also shallow, and casually cruel yet well-meaning in that self-serving way peculiar to the very rich – all except the bitchy Farleigh, who himself is trying to buttress his position within Felix’s eccentric family, his “obvious differences” notwithstanding.

Fennell gives each character a moment and the actors shine, particularly Keoghan as the pathetic and simultaneously creepy Oliver, Pike as Felix’s dingbat mother Elspeth, and Archie Madekwe as the arch cousin Farleigh.

“Saltburn” is very similar to the 1999 Matt Damon movie “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and contains several scenes guaranteed to flip the stomach from First Class to Coach. Mladen has already described them so I won’t rub your noses in the grossness. Remember: “Saltburn” is a comedy – a blackly mordant comedy, not as quiet and subtle as “Being There” or as laugh-out-loud as “Doctor Strangelove,” but yes, a comedy, masquerading as a weird, offbeat drama and stinging social commentary.

The ending felt tacked-on and tonally inconsistent with everything that preceded it. Director Fennell could have come up with a more artful way of imparting that infodump.

As I watched young Oliver make his way through the surreal countryside of the Catton family’s dreamlike world, never becoming one of them but finding his place, like a tumor on a PET scan, I wondered how it is that some people renounce the good parts of themselves to obtain a little comfort and prestige. I realized “Saltburn” does bear some relevance to “Being There,” because it proves yet again that life really is a state of mind.

I give it a grade of A-. A decadent, vulgar, rakish, profane, hilarious, outrageous spectacle – with no redeeming qualities or characters, yes. But impossible not to watch.

Mladen’s movie score: F

Del’s movie score: A-

Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical writer. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and writer.