Call it a sexually deranged "Downton Abbey" or a hilariously homicidal takedown on one-percenters. But whatever you call "Saltburn," only in theaters, you won't be indifferent to it. Either you'll bolt for the exit or stay glued to your seat in the face of its delicious mayhem.
As written and directed by Emerald Fennell, "Saltburn" is shamelessly divisive, just like her Oscar-winning script for 2020's "Promising Young Woman." Even when she wobbles on the high wire she's walking in "Saltburn," Fennell is out to challenge us. Don't look here for comfort.
In blowing the lid off the depravity and deceit of the aristocracy in England circa 2006, this mad wicked whatzit of a movie shows nothing much has changed. Class obsession reigns supreme as our protagonist Oliver Quick, played by the never-uninteresting Barry Keoghan (Oscar nominated as the village idiot in "The Banshees of Inisherin"), begins his adventure.
"Saltburn" kicks off as a spin on "The Talented Mr. Ripley," with poor boy Oliver beginning his scholarship term at Oxford being shunned by everyone. He yearns to be more like filthy rich, impossibly hot Felix Catton, acted to the manner born by Jacob Elordi of "The Kissing Booth," "Euphoria" and "Priscilla" (as Elvis no less).
Remember how Matt Damon drooled over Jude Law in "Ripley?" It's like that. Oliver and Felix live in two different worlds until Oliver stealthily sticks a nail in Felix's bicycle tire and then lends the Adonis his bike, prompting Felix to adopt this scruffy puppy.
It's only when Felix invites Oliver to summer at the Catton estate that "Saltburn" (the name of the film and the gothic mansion with 127 rooms) goes bonkers and escalates from there. I know people who loathe this movie for being smug about petty shocks. First of all, the shocks aren't petty, especially when the bodies start piling up.
Get on Fennell's profane wavelength and you're in for a raucous ride into cloud cuckooland. Prurient? Maybe. But also irresistible. Fennell, an Oxford grad herself, knows how to dip a comic line in acid and show desire in all its squishy allure. The scene in which Oliver slurps up Felix's bathwater seems to get prudes into a lather. Too transgressive? That's Fennell for you.
And the actors are decadent delights, starting with Rosamund Pike as Elspeth, mother to Felix and a hostess who welcomes Oliver with a charm that doesn't quite hide her vampiric taste for the kill. Oscar attention must be paid to Pike, who sweetly mocks her son's attention to Oliver. "Darling, you're kind about everyone so you can't be trusted."
She's not wrong. High marks as well to Richard E. Grant as Felix's droll daddy, Alison Oliver as Felix's promiscuous sister, Archie Madekwe as a gravytrain-riding cousin, and a sensational, scene-stealing Carey Mulligan as poor Pamela, a guest who'll do anything for attention.
Still, the film rests on the teamwork of Keoghan and Elordi. Felix dotes on Oliver until he discovers that his new friend may be lying about, well, everything -- especially his past. And Elordi finds the menace nestling inside a handsome, harmless exterior.
Keoghan, taking Oliver from a shy virgin to a lethal extrovert dancing naked through the halls of Saltburn to "Murder on the Dancefloor," centers the film in a sly, slithery performance that makes Olivers of us all, fetishizing wealth and loving things that won't love us back.
Without judgement, of course. Fennell calls her characters "my horrible little evil spider babies" and sees herself in each of them. Will you? Your enjoyment of "Saltburn" depends on it. The talented Ms. Fennell has made an imperfect movie but not an impersonal one. Just try getting it out of your head.