‘Saltburn’ Trusts Its Audience Only To Be Idiots
12:27 PM EST on January 10, 2024
In watching Saltburn, Emerald Fennell's misguided exploration of class warfare and the follow-up to the almost equally abominable Promising Young Woman, I found my brain tallying up a list of everything the movie did wrong, which is something I don't enjoy doing after committing two-plus hours of my life to watching something. I had plenty of time to count flaws in my seat—131 minutes, to be exact—but I haven't yet stopped plumbing the depths of this movie's despair-inducing creative decisions since watching it on Christmas.
Just to name a few: the 4:3 aspect ratio, only there to signal auteurism and elicit screenshots for social media, rather than to serve the plot in any way; the acting, which was cartoonish to the point of clunky parody, save for Jacob Elordi doing some career-best work to make his avatar of privilege into something resembling a real human, bad accent work and all; the "provocative" character actions that you might have heard about involving a sullied bathtub and a fresh grave; the anachronistic music and, perplexingly, the usage of a Superbad DVD at least a few months before it even came out in theaters ... Man, I am steamed all over again!
Despite all that, nothing made me angrier than being jolted from a state of annoyed boredom and into actual disgust by the "twist reveal" at the end.
Since the movie is still out in the world, there aren't any easily accessible clips of the reveal, so allow me to explain. (Spoilers throughout, if you care about such things.) Throughout the movie's interminable runtime, Barry Keoghan's Oliver has been shown to be a sociopath. He lies about his father dying and about his mother's alcoholism (they are both perfectly normal upper-middle class parents), he has an obsession with Elordi's Felix that would make Misery blush, and he systematically interjects himself into the titular estate's wealthy resident family until he can feel like he's mega-rich, rather than just "well-off." When people start dying around the estate, starting with Felix and then his sister Venetia, it's obvious to anyone who hasn't fallen asleep that Oliver has been killing his way to the top.
But it's not obvious enough for Fennell. A chunk of the climax of this movie is spent on a montage explicitly showing every bad thing Oliver has done to the Catton family, from arranging a meet-cute with Felix by poking a hole in his bike tire, to poisoning Felix, to driving Venetia to suicide. It's all played for shock and awe, but the only thing shocking is how little Fennell trusts her audience to connect some extremely bright dots.
At no point beyond maybe the first 15 minutes of the movie can anyone watching this slop believe that Oliver is on the up and up. The whole point of Saltburn, and the source of its absolutely rancid class politics born both from Fennell's status as a jewelry heiress (yes, that's almost certainly why her name is Emerald) and her inability to see ten feet in front of her, is that Oliver is a status-obsessed social climber. The poors will ruin the wealthy, oh my! Hell, she makes this obvious in a pivotal, insomuch as anything in this movie can be pivotal, scene, where Oliver wears horns (get it?) to a party that sees Felix in angel wings (GET IT???). The "twist" then is just ... a continuation of the story she has been telling, and though it might be a bad story in the first place, it didn't need neon signs screaming "This Guy Is Freaken' Twisted!"
There are much better ways to do such a reveal, even in equally terrible movies. Immediately upon watching it, I thought back, as I often do, to Saw. The first one deploys a montage at the boiling point, showing how the dead man in the room where Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell have been locked for one shitty night is actually the Jigsaw killer, and it truly does come out of nowhere while still making complete sense. A reveal sequence in this case isn't just there to flex some cinematic muscle, but also to help solidify the plot of the movie. (The ensuing Saw movies would all replicate this trick, but they are all worse by far, so I'm less excited to think about them; at least the spirit of those reveals are the same.)
Better movies can do this too, in order to spool the mysteries and thrills found therein. Ocean's Eleven peaks at the "what happened to all that money?" scene, in which Danny Ocean and his gang of ruffians are revealed to be impossible geniuses, which is something the movie has been ingraining in the viewer's brain without making it obvious until it had to. Christopher Nolan's best movie, The Prestige, has a simpler magic trick at its core, as it turns out Christian Bale has an accomplice throughout ... who is also Christian Bale. Mulholland Drive also does this in its own way, but I am in no way qualified to analyze whatever Mulholland Drive is talking about.
All of these movies reveal something that the audience didn't know, or were hoping to learn, without beating anyone over the head with the cleverness. What Saltburn gets wrong, fundamentally wrong, is that there has to be added value in its machinations. If you remove the montage scene, does this movie no longer make sense? No, it's still as obvious as a sledgehammer. Is the montage itself fun? That's more subjective, but it's not fun to me, personally, to be mocked as a moron who needs flashcards to understand this plot. Just before the movie shows the same hand it's been showing for two hours, Oliver asks a comatose Elspeth (played by Rosamund Pike, who at least seemed to have fun out there), "Is there ever really such a thing as an accident?"
Oliver's whole personal mantra is that he puts in the work, you see, while the rich residents of Saltburn only come to their success by accident. The work he takes pride in is that of sabotage and murder, but we knew that already. It's what the whole movie tries to be about, and a montage with strangely rousing music only serves to make his plot seem basic and boring. Perhaps, then, the montage is the most essential part of the movie after all, because it reveals what it's been about the whole time: There are no fresh ideas here, just tricks of the light meant to mask a black hole.