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  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz


Money Can’t Buy Sanity

Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to Promising Young Woman “Saltburn” is without a question the most WTF film of the year. WTF films provoke, they shock and they often like to disgust. Saltburn does all of these things and more. The font of the credits are the fonts of centuries-old fairytale books as Saltburn is a fairytale. The fairytale is about the calculating ogre who worms his way into a royal family's orbit and obliterates their already crumbling reign. There are court jesters and jokers, a servant, a dashing prince, a beautiful princess, a king and queen, the unwanted fairy, the beast, sleepy potions, magic spells, and of course an ivory castle and royal gardens. I wouldn’t describe Saltburn as fun but it's definitely interesting and certainly incomparable with most films. I expected to be entertained by it while not caring for it. The outcome was the opposite. I wasn’t entertained by it at all but loved it and cared deeply about this broken-hearted and lost family. Especially now that I’ve seen it and plan to study it a few more times inside and out. Critics and audiences everywhere are talking about it regardless of whether it's praise or criticism. This is all very good as you always want interesting films to be a topic of discussion. Yet, it's interesting to me just how many interpretations people have about Saltburn that I disagree with.

First of all, I have a very very dark sense of humor. Many have described Saltburn as a comedy. It’s not AT ALL. Much of the dialogue and the delivery of that dialogue is comedic but the tone and events are far from amusing. The moments that will make you howl with laughter are not for the audience's amusement but to convey the mental state of the characters. It’s also not another film about “Eating the rich”. Things don’t end well for the “rich” in question, but the doomed family in Saltburn are NOT the people from the Knives Out films, The White Lotus, The Menu, or anything else. They’re a little like Succession but just barely. I don’t expect most people to like Saltburn, it IS a hard one to get into if you’re not that interested in it to begin with but it’s a very masterful, non-judgmental portrait of a great many things and most shockingly, quite empathetic.

Saltburn is set in the mid to late 2000s which I think was a remarkably smart choice because even though Saltburn could easily take place now, there are so many events happening at the moment, that it would be difficult if not impossible to tackle all of them amongst the backdrop of Saltburn’s events. The time in which Saltburn is set is smacked down in the middle of the Iraq War, the beginning of a historical presidential election in the U.S. and BlackBerry phones were what iPhones are today. People could hide in the background more easily and a sense of generational naivety was deeply ingrained in all of us.

Such is society when Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) arrives at Oxford University. Struggling to find his place in the world and rooted with deep feelings of inadequacy, he finds himself drawn to the charming and aristocratic Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) who befriends him and invites him to “Saltburn” his eccentric family's spellbinding estate for summer he’ll never forget.

The grand manor of Saltburn is a character in its own right. “Saltburn” is amazing, I love it. It is right out of a “Picture Book”. If it were any higher, it’d be Downton Abbey. Felix’s family all dress in black tie for dinner, have wild Great Gatsby-like parties, and routinely say fully outrageous things with the utmost casual nonchalance. Oliver is quickly introduced to icy no-nonsense butler Duncan (Paul Rhys), Felix’s elegant and lively mother Elsbeth (Rosamund Pike), his Cheshire Cat grinning father James (Richard E. Grant), his bulimic sister Venita (Alison Oliver), his American cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) and “Poor Dear Pamela” (Carey Mulligan), a house guest who’s long overstayed her welcome.

Lying naked in the grass to read, playing tennis in formal wear while drinking champagne, and partying like there’s no tomorrow, summers at Saltburn carry on as usual. As an envious Oliver learns more about Felix’s dysfunctional family, the more he manipulates them all leading to a lie Oliver told Felix early on being exposed just as the summer is about to end. He unsuccessfully tries to get back in Felix’s good graces and when the sun rises the next morning, tragedy strikes and the extent of the family's psychological problems presents itself.

None of the characters in Saltburn are mentally healthy but there are various degrees. Oliver initially seems sympathetic but his cruelty comes forth in various moments of the film and his greed and dehumanization towards others is overwhelmingly selfish and ugly. Felix can be a lot to take at times but he’s never unkind or dishonest. He’s the most honest person in the film. His bike has a flat tire in the beginning and he doesn’t straight up ask Oliver to borrow his but rather implies that Oliver should lend it to him. “Hmm,” he says after asking Oliver whatever is he to do as he needs to get to a class in time. He even manages to make this seem charming. “Ok you” I’d have said humorously (And flirtatiously) as I’d have gotten off the bike which of course Oliver does (Get off the bike, not the flirting. He’s too insecure around Felix at this point).

Felix doesn’t even have to try to charm people, he’s just one of those mesmerizing people that everyone wants a piece of. He’s to Oliver what Anne Hathaway was to Thomasin McKenzie in Eileen (Another great film this year I’ll discuss with you soon). Felix does very well with girls, gets decent grades and he successfully presents himself as a happy person but he isn’t. He has to be on display for people’s imaginations all the time and present a version of himself that others want so badly to be true. Not just handsome and charismatic but sane. The person who’s okay, functioning, thriving, and doesn’t come from people as troubled as his parents and sister. He enjoys the perks of his life but the isolation is cold and unbearable. People like Oliver have disappointed him in the past and finding anyone who isn’t envious or manipulative is too much for him to ask for.

He knows how troubled he and his family are but he never talks about it because he doesn’t know how. Neither do they. His family can say things that are creepy and insensitive and they stare at people and carry themselves in manners that freak me out but they’re not bad people. They’re not even selfish people. Not really. They’re just so massively unaware. Financially, they’re extraordinarily privileged people but they’re not well. They’re not dangerous to the world outside of the manor but they’re not safe either. If the world around them saw their dysfunction as Oliver does, everyone would manipulate them because they’d have known how gullible they are.

Elsbeth (Who no doubt had Venita’s bulimia when she was her age) refers to her daughter’s sickness as “fingers for pudding” and drops hints to “Poor Dear Pamela” that it’s time for her to leave. “Poor Dear Pamela” is sick as well and her presence reminds Elsbeth of herself. She later finds out “Poor Dear Pamela '' has died and doesn’t know how to show her pain so she brushes it off like nothing happened. “She’ll do anything for attention.” She says. You can’t not laugh at that line but you must be aware of the sadness at play here. She can’t even grieve for her friend without sounding inhuman because the society she and her husband grew up in didn’t allow them to be human so by the time they had their own family, they kept the values they were dealt with growing up and the cycle continues.

The next death is a major one and James talks to the corpse in front of everyone as though it’s just taken a slight fall and needs to rest for a moment. His smile and eyes are so big here and once inside, talks about how delicious the food is. You laugh at these moments because they make you so uncomfortable but they’re truly upsetting. So many people live like sociopaths because they’ve been trained like animals and that’s what society expects of them but they’re not not feeling. They feel very deeply and they can’t show that so their repression drives them to madness. They’re animals left in the wilderness who are not allowed to succumb to their natures. E. Grant, Pike, and Mulligan especially portray that kind of trauma brilliantly. Mulligan’s character is labeled “Poor Dear Pamela” in the credits which is very smart. Mulligan is only in Saltburn very briefly but she’s the most hilarious and among the most heartbreaking.

The Cattons are people who are behaving badly simply because there’s no one around to stop them. Most would say they need doctors (As an insult). They do need professional help but what they need are people who are gonna hug them tightly, let them sob hysterically for the longest time, and tell them “It’s ok, you’re gonna be ok. I’m here to help you.” They need to be shown love and they can only show their humanity through their insanity. They’re not crying out for help because they’ve surrendered to their way of life.

I’ve read some reviews and overheard audiences who are excitedly anticipating Saltburn. Some have already managed to see it at Telluride and lots of audiences and critics misunderstand the Cattons as people (Especially the audiences). They only talk about Oliver's craziest moments (There are three that are disgusting, yet are so necessary in demonstrating how dangerous and terrifying he is) and ignore the Cattons entirely unless it's to laugh at their expense and make fun of them, thus continuing the cycle like the one shown in the film: “If you’re not well, it’s your fault. You deal with it.” It’s inhuman, the smug comments I’ve heard, and completely in line with where we are in the world right now.

Saltburn doesn’t exploit mental illness - Oliver does. He exploits people who are ill for his own amusement and personal gain. I can’t stress enough just how much my heart broke for this family who were so endangered and more destroyed than they already were by an outsider. This family is so sick and it’s not their fault that they’re sick. It just isn’t. No one chooses to live like they do. No one.

The entire cast of Saltburn delivers a complete masterclass in acting and they deserve a SAG for their ensemble. Elordi, Pike, Oliver, and Mulligan were the standouts for me. Elordi is most known for his work as the shattered and physically violent Nate Jacobs on Euphoria who recycles his generational trauma by destroying the lives of the people around him. He’s also the new Elvis Presley in Sofia Coppola’s Elvis. He’s just a tremendous actor who knows how to use his eyes to convey what his characters can’t in words which every actor needs to know how to do and he has a classic Hollywood look to him. He’s very nice in interviews and I hope his gift isn’t exploited like Felix’s innocence was.

Alison Oliver is soul-crushing as Veneita. I made fun of her the first time I saw the trailer and I’m just so ashamed of myself for doing that now that I know her story. She twitches nervously as she overpours red wine and she can’t seem to put it down, just letting it spill all over the dining cloth. There’s a monologue she gives in the bathtub towards the end about Felix’s honesty and Oliver’s greed which made all the small hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

Pike gives her best performance since Gone Girl and captures the humanity in a woman who so sincerely believes she has none. Of course, Mulligan is always memorable however brief her screen time and her character is so crucial because she’s there for the Catton’s to feel healthier than they are because she’s such a mess but eventually, the similarities hit too close to home and they want her gone. It’s unkind but not evil, they’re trying to survive themselves and they all shadow this when they’re in the same room.

Just imagine who these people could have been if they had gotten help earlier in life. They’re all very lively and energetic. I imagine how they’d be more generous with their wealth and the warmth with which they’d communicate with one another and show physical affection. Just these kids being able to hug their parents and say “I love you guys” would be like setting off a bomb. They’d be so taken aback and not know how to respond properly. There are simply so many versions of themselves that they’ll never know and they don’t even realize it.

Elsbeth confides in Oliver her fear of “Ugliness” which she says she’s had her whole life. Felix even harmlessly jokes to Elsbeth that she is a terrible person when she admits she doesn’t know WHERE her fear of ugliness stems FROM. Again, none of the Cattons know how to live openly with real feelings so I don’t even know how out in the world Elsbeth and James are as people. I’m sure there are functions and work trips here and there but it seems they isolate themselves from the outside and stay in Saltburn because they’re so afraid there’s something about them others will notice and judge them for. Something that simply isn’t there. It’s a big bad world out there and they’re frightened of it to such an extent that they live out their lives in their foxhole. Duncan knows how vulnerable these people are and that’s why he’s so chilling to strangers because everyone is out to profit from the Cattons. He’s very protective of them but can’t go about that normally either.

Because the Cattons can’t even show love the way people should be able to, they try to compensate for it by living so performatively. All those over-the-top Gatsby parties aren’t just for shock value. They’re trying to gain love through what they can do with their wealth and that’s something lots of unstable people with money do: Try and BUY love. Just think of episode 27 of Succession. Those who watch the show will understand what I’m trying to say.

Saltburn is an entirely different animal than Promising Young Woman in terms of tone but they are similar in a lot of ways. Both films present a non-judgmental social commentary on major issues in our world. Fennel’s films don’t just explore them, they explore the societies that exist around them and how they enable and are complicit in the recycling of them. How rape is handled by a large chunk of our culture keeps the grotesque in power and manipulating those with mental illness keeps them locked away in their misery.

She has spoken about how Saltburn is so much about “Wanting” because it's so easy for all of us to want so many things but to what extent? If our greed takes us over, we’re no longer human because it becomes all we are and real human beings are better than that. Their realities just don’t match what they're worth.

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