Oh, Oliver Quick. With a name like that and an arduous background story, this enthusiastic, naive and easily mocked scholarship student who arrives at Oxford in 2006 would seem to have a Dickensian quality. But as played by the electric Barry Keoghan in Emerald Fennell’s trippy, psychologically grotesque, pitch-black comedy/thriller “Saltburn,” our man Oliver turns out to be more of a Tom-Ripley-meets-Patrick-Bateman type.
The director and screenwriter Fennell, winner of the Oscar for the screenplay of the film “Promising Young Woman” (2020), proves once again that she is a cinematic provocateur capable of creating memorable shock moments, even if sometimes caramel-colored, exquisitely staged but often brutally ugly histrionics are more about fireworks than substance.
However, this is a very entertaining journey through the dark side of class consciousness, a sort of vicious take on “Brideshead Revisited,” only with 2000s pop culture references to films like “Superbad” and “The Ring” and songs such as “Time to Pretend” and “Mr. The Bright Side” by The Killers.
Amazon Studios presents a film written and directed by Emerald Fennell. Duration: 127 minutes. Rated R (for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, extensive language, some disturbing violent content, and drug use). Opens Tuesday at local theaters.
Also, there are, let’s see, one, two, three – at least three scenes so startling and graphically strange that we won’t go into detail here, other than to say that one involves dirty bath water, another involves menstruation, and the third concerns a fresh, so to speak, grave. You have been warned.
“Saltburn” opens with Keoghan (“Dunkirk,” “The Banshees of Inisherin”) as Oliver walking onto the Oxford campus and immediately finding himself sitting at the outcast table with other misfits, geeks and nerds. But Oliver has other plans from the moment he sets eyes on Jacob Elordi’s Felix Catton, an impossibly handsome, rich and charming boy who is the center of the student universe, attracting the adoration of all who come into contact with the shining luminous essence of him.
After Oliver does good to Felix, lending Felix his bicycle when Felix gets stranded with a flat tire, Felix takes Oliver under his wing and they become fast friends, much to the dismay of Felix’s inner circle, in detail of Felix’s half-American cousin, Farleigh. Start (Archie Madekwe), who immediately distrusts Oliver. (Farleigh’s larger-than-life personality and wry sarcasm will remind you of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Freddie Miles from “Ripley.”)
Oliver attracts Felix’s sympathy with his tales of his harsh upbringing and the recent death of his drug-addict father, while Felix finds himself trusting Oliver because Oliver is “real,” unlike Felix’s beautiful, superficial friends.
The school year ends. Oliver has nowhere to go. Felix, who apparently has a way of collecting stray humans and keeping them around until they bore him, invites Oliver to spend the summer at his family’s ridiculously luxurious estate, known as Saltburn. This is when the high-concept hijinks and insightful satire really begin.
We meet Felix’s family, including his mother, Elsbeth (Rosamund Pike), a judgmental and casually cold soul who claims with a straight face that she has an aversion to ugly people, as if it were a legitimate medical condition; her father, Sir James (Richard E. Grant), a cheerful guy who always seems to have his head in the clouds, and her sister, Venetia (Alison Wary), whose eating disorder is the subject of much discussion.
Also staying in the house are the aforementioned Farleigh, who keeps telling Oliver that he will be forgotten once the fall semester arrives, if not before, and Elsbeth’s clearly damaged friend Pamela (Carey Mulligan), who has worn out her welcome and continues to miss the increasingly obvious hints that it’s time for her to move on with her life and, you know, QUIT.
Saltburn’s younger set indulge in mildly shocking bohemian activities, from reading Harry Potter books on the courts completely naked, to playing tennis in formal dress, to obligatory lavish late-night parties involving sex, drugs and EDM. Felix surprises Oliver with a road trip that reveals a twist I didn’t see coming: a deliciously twisted secret that changes the dynamic between Felix and Oliver forever.
It is expected that this development will effectively end Oliver’s time in Saltburn, but it only serves to encourage and motivate him to show his true colors. Let’s just say that Saltburn and many of its residents will never be the same again.
In an ensemble full of talent, Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant create supporting actors who are so wonderfully out of touch with the harsh realities of the world, sometimes so casually indifferent to human emotion, that we would love to see a prequel. placing them at center stage. (Surely this can’t have been Saltburn’s first strange summer.)
In the wake of the HBO series “Euphoria” and his role as Elvis in “Priscilla,” Jacob Elordi continues to build a star-making career. As for Barry Keoghan: he was given a gift with the character of Oliver Quick, and he took the role to the next level.