Oliver (Barry Keoghan, right) visits the lavish estate of his college friend Felix (Jacob Elordi, with Alison Oliver) in “Saltburn.”
Oh, Oliver Quick. With a name like that and a hardscrabble background story to boot, this eager and naïve and easily mocked scholarship student who arrives at Oxford in 2006 would seem to have a Dickensian quality. But as portrayed by the electric Barry Keoghan in Emerald Fennell’s outlandish and psychologically grotesque and pitch-black comedy/thriller “Saltburn,” our man Oliver turns out to be more of a Tom-Ripley-meets-Patrick-Bateman kind of guy.
Writer-director Fennell, who won an Oscar for her screenplay of her film “Promising Young Woman” (2020), once again proves to be a cinematic provocateur capable of creating memorable shock-value moments, though at times the candy-colored, exquisitely staged yet often brutally ugly histrionics are more about the fireworks than substance.
Still, this is a greatly entertaining journey through the dark side of class consciousness, a kind of vicious take on “Brideshead Revisited,” only with 2000s pop culture references to films such as “Superbad” and “The Ring,” and songs such as MGMT’s “Time to Pretend” and “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers.
Amazon Studios presents a film written and directed by Emerald Fennell. Running time: 127 minutes. Rated R (for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, some disturbing violent content, and drug use). Opens Tuesday in local theaters.
Also, there are, let’s see, one, two, three — at least three scenes so startling and graphically weird that we won’t get into detail here, other than to say one involves dirty bathwater, another involves menstruation and the third involves a fresh, so to speak, gravesite. You’ve been warned.
“Saltburn” opens with Keoghan (“Dunkirk,” “The Banshees of Inisherin”) as Oliver walking onto Oxford’s campus and immediately finding himself sitting at the outcast table with the 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, wealthy and charming fellow who is the center of the student universe, drawing the adoration of all who come into contact with his shining bright essence.
After Oliver does Felix a solid, lending Felix his bicycle when Felix finds himself 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, most notably Felix’s half-American cousin Farleigh Start (Archie Madekwe), who immediately distrusts Oliver. (Farleigh’s over-the-top personality and sneering sarcasm will remind you of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Freddie Miles from “Ripley.”)
Oliver draws Felix’s sympathy with his tales of his rough upbringing and the recent death of his drug-addict father, while Felix finds himself trusting Oliver because Oliver is “real,” unlike Felix’s beautiful and 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 ludicrously lavish estate, known as Saltburn. This is when the high-camp hijinks and the piercing satire truly begin.
We meet Felix’s family, including his mother, Elsbeth (Rosamund Pike), a judgmental and effortlessly cold soul who says with a straight face she has an aversion to ugly people, as if it’s a legitimate medical condition; his father, Sir James (Richard E. Grant), a cheery sort who always seems to have his head in the clouds, and his sister, Venetia (Alison Wary), whose eating disorder is the subject of much discussion.
Also staying at the house: the aforementioned Farleigh, who keeps telling Oliver he’ll be forgotten once the fall semester arrives, if not sooner, and Elsbeth’s clearly damaged friend Pamela (Carey Mulligan), who has worn out her welcome and keeps missing the increasingly obvious suggestions it’s time for her to get on with her life and, you know, LEAVE.
The younger set at Saltburn engages in acts of mildly shocking bohemian activities, from reading Harry Potter books in the fields while fully nude to playing tennis in their formalwear to the obligatory lavish late-night partying that entails sex and drugs and EDM. Felix surprises Oliver with a road trip that reveals a twist I did not see coming — a deliciously warped secret that forever changes the dynamic between Felix and Oliver.
One expects this development will effectively end Oliver’s time at Saltburn, but it only serves to embolden Oliver and motivate him to show his true colors. Let’s just say Saltburn and many of its denizens will never be the same.
Rosamund Pike is a cast standout as Felix’s judgmental mother.
In an ensemble bursting with talent, Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant create supporting players who are so wonderfully out of touch with the harsh realities of the world, so casually indifferent to human emotions at times, that we’d love to see a prequel placing them center stage. (Surely this must not have been the first strange summer at Saltburn.)
On the heels of the HBO series “Euphoria” and his turn as Elvis in “Priscilla,” Jacob Elordi continues to build a star-level career. As for Barry Keoghan: He has been given a gift with the character of Oliver Quick, and he knocks the role into the next county.