Saltburn relies too heavily on graphic images and shock factor
The film's jarring explicit scenes have the effect of numbing the audience to its emotional impact.
*WARNING* This article includes major spoilers for Saltburn.
When Emerald Fennell announced that her follow-up to her Academy Award-winning debut Promising Young Woman was to be a dark, twisted, 'eat the rich' tale, audiences were naturally captivated.
Billed as a psychological thriller, Saltburn looked set to emulate the homoerotica and unsettling malevolence found in the likes of The Talented Mr Ripley, all while examining our obsession with gorgeous, opulent decadence that oozes through every frame.
Rich with promise, Fennell poured the elitism at Oxford into the perverted heart of the script, as the belittled "scholarship boy" Oliver (Barry Keoghan) befriends and becomes infatuated with the wealthy, sexy, popular kid Felix.
How could he not, when it's Jacob Elordi? But what starts out as a hyperrealist snapshot of the classism and isolation synonymous with prestigious universities soon descends into a perverse thriller with hideously explicit scenes.
Fennell’s ambition is to capitalise on the shock factor of these blood-thirsty scenes, but it comes at the cost of the substance of the film.
The most distressing moments are predominantly reserved for the final act, as Oliver grows in confidence and increases the frequency of his heinous deeds.
From Oliver eating out Venetia (Alison Oliver) on her period to his blood-soaked lips in the bath to stripping off and gyrating into Felix’s freshly dug grave, Fennell isn’t subtle about her desire to make the audience uncomfortable.
The graphic visuals are often drawn out, stressed with wide, lingering shots, to encourage the audience to sit with the dramatic tableau being presented.
Undeniably, some of these obscenities are rarely seen on-screen, but the shock factor loses its potency as it's overused to try and evoke a visceral reaction from the audience.
Saltburn almost tries too hard to confront social expectations that it detracts from the film and inevitably numbs the audience to the emotional impact it’s clearly trying to create.
There is also the haunting shot of Venetia, dead, in a bath of blood after she died by suicide, before Oliver claims his final victim and rips a tube out of Elsbeth’s (Rosamund Pike) throat.
In isolation, each horror – suicide, murder, violence and sexual perversion – is assaulting to watch. Yet these triggering scenes are jarring as they are spliced together, thrown in back to back, and become more frequent as Oliver’s perverse desires consume him.
Saltburn relies so heavily on this technique that the sexually-charged film fails to ever reach its climax.
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Oversaturated with grotesque motifs, it’s hard not to be overstimulated by the sickly concoction and stay immersed in the film. The short-lived shocks only draw us out of the viewing experience and distract us from the underdeveloped narrative.
Of course, assaulting the audience with traumatising scenes is nothing new. Thrillers lend themselves to this technique, as has been seen in everything from Midsommar or The Lovely Bones to scarring horrors such as The Human Centipede.
But this fascination with substance over style has robbed the film of the delicate subtlety that these intense subject matters need. What should be moments of fleeting disturbance that offer psychological insight into Oliver are utilised for no purpose other than to provoke a reaction.
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As the plot wraps up and the body count clocks up, Oliver dances naked through his new manor to Murder on the Dancefloor. Concluding with this number, Fennell reinforces that this was never a movie about subtlety, but spelling out to the audience – in an overtly simplistic way – what they should be feeling and when.
By capitalising on its shock factor, Saltburn never fully commits to fleshing out this superficial world, which not even cameos from Carey Mulligan and the exceptional flair of Rosamund Pike can save.
Instead, it falls victim to the very thing it’s supposedly exposing – that even the most beautiful things cannot conceal the emptiness that lurks beneath them.
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