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This massively popular 2023 movie pissed me off. Here’s why you shouldn’t watch it

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A shadow of a man stands on a stage in Saltburn.

David Caballero

Overall, 2023 was a great year for movies. We had everything, from jaw-dropping epics like Oppenheimer to insightful fantasy masterpieces like All of Us Strangers. Yet, for every great movie, we also had some truly detestable efforts, from stinkers like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania to baffling rubbish like Ghosted. Yet, out of this pile of misery and waste, no 2023 movie pissed me off more than Saltburn, Emerald Fennell’s psychosexual/psychological thriller starring Oscar-nominee Barry Keoghan.

As an unapologetic fan of Fennell’s previous film, 2020’s Promising Young Woman, I had high hopes for Saltburn. Yet, I was met with nothing but failure and ineptitude, courtesy of a film that is far too concerned with shocking viewers to deliver any semblance of genuine shock. Everything Promising Young Woman‘s detractors complained about is abundantly present in Saltburn, quite possibly the most desperate film I have seen in recent memory.

Nothing new under the sun

A man lays in the grass in Saltburn.
Amazon Prime Video

In Saltburn, Keoghan plays the clumsily named Oliver Quick, a shy and slightly off-putting Oxford student who strikes a friendship with the handsome Felix Catton, played with all the enthusiasm of a dry twig by Euphoria‘s Jacob Elordi. Following distressing news for Oliver, Felix invites him to spend the summer at his palatial home, Saltburn. Soon, Oliver finds himself in a world of excess and wealth beyond belief, a rush he’ll hold on to by any means possible.

If this premise sounds familiar, it’s because Saltburn shamelessly rips off many better films that came before it, particularly Anthony Minghella’s superb 1999 thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley. But Fennell ain’t no Minghella, and Elordi sure as hell ain’t no Jude Law. They both do lazy and surface imitations of the 1999 classic, to the point where Saltburn often feels like a straight-up imitation rather than a homage.

A man reads a book outside in Saltburn.
Amazon Prime Video

The supporting cast fares equally poorly, let down by a screenplay so concerned with being provocative that it forgets to be interesting. Rosamund Pike is only there to deliver supposedly witty one-liners that are neither biting, nor particularly clever; if they occasionally succeed, it’s only because it’s Pike delivering them. She gets better material in The Wheel of Time, which is saying something.

Keoghan is the only one who gets something interesting to work with, and he generally succeeds. His arresting, distinctively discomforting persona is a great fit for Oliver, and his bizarre energy makes a Herculean effort to sell Saltburn‘s weak plot. If Saltburn doesn’t entirely crumble on its own weight, it’s all because of Keoghan, whose understated approach matches Matt Damon’s take on Tom Ripley. If anything, Fennell at least has a good eye for talent; as Carey Mulligan did with Promising Young Woman, Keoghan elevates Saltburn, making its maladroit director look better than she is.

Saltburn reeks of desperation

A man sits in an empty bathtub in Saltburn.
Amazon Prime Video

If there’s a thing that truly stood out to me about Saltburn, it’s how desperate it is. It’s desperate to shock, provoke, entice, and be memorable; it succeeds at only one of these. The issue here is that Fennell has nothing interesting to say about class, obsession, ambition, or deceit. Her attempts to be subversive are eyebrow-raising at best and outright ridiculous at worst.

Fennell thinks “sex” equals “scandal,” which is not only a terribly backward view, but one that she can’t even execute interestingly. It’s as if she met with a bunch of teenagers who told her what would be the “wildest” things she could put in the movie, and then she did, just for the sake of it. I can practically hear the brutish laughs: “Emerald, what if he drinks the bathtub water?” said Biff. “And what if he has sex with the grave?” suggested Johnny. “Lolololol.” Isn’t it wild?

A man lays crying on a grave in Saltburn.
Amazon Prime Video

Like the protagonist at its center, Saltburn craves the attention given to the cool boys. It wants to be a sweaty, addictive erotic thriller while thinking too highly of itself to actually embrace the sleaze that made the genre such a juggernaut in the first place. Perhaps that’s Saltburn‘s biggest issue: it wants to have its cake and eat it, too. But you can’t be 9 1/2 Weeks and The Talented Mr. Ripley at once, and something tells me Fennell deluded herself into thinking Saltburn could be.

Saltburn became a hit once it got to Amazon Prime Video, not as a prestige, Oscar-worthy vehicle, but as a guilty-pleasure watch, the sort of movie you record your older mom watching so you can upload it to TikTok for cheap laughs. At least everyone involved seems to have run away with this so-bad-it’s-good reputation. Just this week, Keoghan was naked on the cover of Vanity Fair. He and Fennell also did a questionable shoot for W, once again shamelessly ripping off a cult classic for impressions. More power to them, I guess. Because if Saltburn embraced desperation, why shouldn’t they?

More a fizzle than a bang

The cast of Saltburn poses in a promo photo.
Amazon Prime Video/David Caballero

Saltburn won’t age as a great, misunderstood cult classic like Jennifer’s Body; it won’t even age as a so-bad-it’s-good guilty pleasure, constantly rewatched for laughs like Showgirls or Spice World. If it’s remembered at all, it will be seen as a a desperate attempt to capture the zeitgeist, which it did for about 10 minutes, before being forgotten again.

In a few years, when we look back at 2023, we’ll think fondly of truly groundbreaking triumphs like Poor Things or monumental achievements like Oppenheimer. But will we even think of Saltburn? And if we do, will it be anything other than, “I can’t believe anyone thought that was interesting, let alone provocative.” But if Saltburn was the price we had to pay to bring the terminally underrated British pop singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor back into the mainstream, then I’m fine with it existing. We’ll always have Murder on the Dance Floor.

Saltburn is streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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