“Saltburn” is the sort of embarrassment you’ll put up with for 75 minutes. But not for 127. It’s too desperate, too confused, too pleased with its petty shocks to rile anything you’d recognize as genuine excitement. This thing was written and directed by Emerald Fennell, whose previous movie was “Promising Young Woman,” a horror flick about rape that was also a revenge comedy. So believe me: She wants you riled. Fennell’s seen the erotic thrillers, studied her Hitchcock and possibly read her Patricia Highsmith, and gets that if you name your main character Oliver Quick he’s obligated to do something at least arguably Dickensian. The question here, amid all the lying, lazing about and (eventually, inevitably) dying, is to what end?
We’re dragged back to 2006, where two boys at Oxford — bookish Oliver (Barry Keoghan) and rakish Felix (Jacob Elordi) — forge one of those imbalanced, obsessive friendships that one of them mistakes for love and the other tolerates because he’s needier than he looks. It goes south or sideways or to outer space but also nowhere. Well, that’s not entirely accurate, since it also goes, for one summer, to Saltburn, Felix’s family’s estate, a grassy expanse that boasts a Baroque mansion with stratospheric ceilings, one cantilevered staircase, copious portraiture, a Bernard Palissy ceramic platter collection and one of those garden mazes where characters get lost right along with plots.
These two meet, in earnest, when Oliver loans Felix his bike, a moment Oliver’s been waiting for. The best scenes in the movie happen during this Oxford stretch when Oliver experiences Felix as an intoxicant, and Felix’s prepster coterie experiences Oliver as an irritant. There’s some crackle and dreaminess and post-adolescent instability here. Identities are being forged. It’s been better elsewhere — John Hughes, “Heathers,” Hogwarts, Elordi’s HBO show “Euphoria.” But Fennell squeezes some hunger, cruelty and passable tenderness onto these moments. When Oliver tells Felix his father’s just died, Felix extends his Saltburn invitation out of sincere compassion.
Now, what happens over the course of this visit amounts to a different movie — or maybe three. Lust and envy take over. As does Fennell’s tedious, crude stab at psychopathology. Felix hails from one of those stiff, pathologically blasé clans where “clenched” counts as an emotion. Everybody at Saltburn seems ready for a new toy. And Oliver’s A-student impulses make a sport of ingratiation. His erudition, availability and blue eyes impress Felix’s droll mother, Elspeth (Rosamund Pike); his mere arrival arouses Felix’s self-conscious zombie of a sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver). In a different movie, their enthusiasm for this newcomer would make you sad for Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), a schoolmate and old pal of Felix who’s already on the premises, practically a member of the family and flatulent with attitude by the time Oliver shows up. He’s the one nonwhite major character in “Saltburn,” a fact the movie considers doing something intriguing with but abandons. His eyebrows are just chronically Up to Something. Is Farleigh worried about losing a financial lifeline? Is he jealous that Oliver might consummate things with Felix before he does?
But this isn’t a movie in which anybody’s reaction to new developments is straightforward — and not because there’s anything complex or psychological going on with the screenwriting or the performances (Richard E. Grant pumps Felix’s father full of drollery). It’s because Fennell is more drawn to — or maybe just better at — styling and stunts than she is the tougher work of emotional trenchancy. If she gives us one music-video bit (a montage, a whole tracking shot), she must give us half a dozen. When the time comes for the movie to make its switch to gothic mischief, it’s like watching the first half of “Psycho” turn into the video for “When Doves Cry” or George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90.” What’s that look like? Well: Oliver sneaks a peek as Felix masturbates in a tub, and once the coast is clear he bends over and sips the draining bathwater. It’s a fine shot that’s also an absurd thing to have this guy do. Which is how you know the movie is failing as a good work of trash. I didn’t laugh or gape. I just sat there watching an actor do his damnedest to save the rest of the movie before it heads down the drain. Fennell keeps going, though, turning her mild protagonist into someone ripe for the cover of a bodice-ripper: a crafty virgin discovers the lethal weapon of lust.
This was the gist of “Promising Young Woman,” too: that sex was like a chain saw or a gun.When it landed in 2020, the moment seemed right. Fennell had found a way to turn a premise you’d propose at a dinner party or while tipsy in the back of a cab into something tight and mordant: a “rape culture” revenge-o-matic. But it was so morally and formally tidy that it punched its own teeth out. The “o-matic” won. “Saltburn” has the same seductive sleekness — the nerve. But none of the dread or poison kick.
The film’s comic centerpiece was also the star of Fennell’s other movie: Carey Mulligan. Here, she’s deadpanning her way through a chicly ratty mess named Pamela. Mulligan does blinkered, stammering and sad like if Tama Janowitz had written Miss Havisham first. It’s just Helena Bonham-Carter karaoke. But the movie needs it. Pamela has maybe three actual scenes, then we never see her again. She’s overstayed her welcome at Saltburn. But the movie misses the campiness Mulligan’s giving. You’d like to see her and Pike try on the vulgar farce of “Absolutely Fabulous.” But Fennell is going for real opulence, not a comedy of it.
If “Promising Young Woman” had feminist vengeance on its mind, what’s “Saltburn” thinking? I spy three hovering text dots. It’s got some twists and a handful of good lines (nearly all of them belong to Pike), but it doesn’t have many thoughts and even fewer feelings. Here is a movie where gay things occur, but homosexuality abuts, alas, corruption and conniving.
I suppose Fennell has made a movie about toxic elitism, but she’s done it in the way Ikea gives you assembly instructions. And barely even that, since the most blatant class indictment is outsourced to the Pet Shop Boys’ “Rent” during a bout of actual karaoke with Oliver and Farleigh. Staging the warfare between two strivers isn’t a bad urge, but that doesn’t go far enough, either. The movie does for “posh” what “Soul Plane” did for “ghetto”: luxuriate in what it’s pretending to blow up.
I’m even left doubting Fennell’s expertise in main characters. Are we meant to clock a nerd who, when he sheds the clothes and spectacles, makes you as horny as Felix is supposed to make him? Barry Keoghan is trying to create a role out of the disparate parts of other ones (Norman Bates, Tom Ripley, Patrick Bateman), yet doesn’t get all the way there. He couldn’t have. There is no “there.”
The whole movie seems to exist for its coda, and presumably the prosthetics designer whose name appears in the closing credits. It’s another music-video fantasia, but so cynical, literal-minded and literally cheeky that I cringed my way through it. And it asks a lot of Keoghan, who could have built a memorable, original character for Fennell. But real acting is not what Fennell’s after here. Oliver has a decent amount of strategic sex and Keoghan does his share of nudity, but the only pornographic thing about the movie is the house.
Rated R. Throw a rock. Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes. In theaters.