There’s been no shortage of “eat the rich” films lately. In fact, it might be Hollywood’s favorite new genre.
From the Oscar-winning “Parasite” to the “Knives Out” franchise and HBO’s smash hit “White Lotus” — all mock narcissistic affluence and give the noble downtrodden their cosmic retribution. Yet they always come with a preaching lack of self-awareness. They aren’t really satires, but attempts by Hollywood elites to claim a moral high ground. These writers, directors, and actors view themselves as the little guy, the sensitive artist. But they are the characters they mean to crucify.
Emerald Fennel’s “Saltburn” — released over Thanksgiving — provides a refreshing take on an unbearably derivative genre. Instead of eating the rich, Fennel told Polygon the film wants to “lick the rich, suck the rich, and then bite the rich, and then swallow them.” This is no tome on the evils of capitalism, but — inadvertently — a cautionary tale of what happens when we succumb to the intoxication of luxury in all its forms.
— Saltburn (@Saltburnfilm) December 4, 2023
It follows a socially awkward, lower class Oxford student Oliver (Barry Keoghan), as he befriends an aristocratic classmate, Felix (Jacob Elordi), and scores an invitation to the family’s imposing Saltburn estate for the summer. Felix’s parents are superficially welcoming libertines, unable to truly appreciate anyone or anything longer than it provides immediate sensory pleasure — the downside of fantastic wealth absent any larger life purpose. His sister, Veronica, suffers from a jaded affluenza. “You’re just another one of his toys,” she tells Oliver, building tension with a misdirection on the true power play at work. (RELATED: Hollywood A-Listers Accidentally Tell Us Why Their Movies Suck)
They spend their days laying, playing, and wandering throughout the property. They drink and dine their days away, with nothing to do but plan the next party. They are what’s left of the aristocracy — massive wealth, empty lives — absent all nobility of character.
There are gay undertones to the film, yet they are presented as a symptom of broader decadence, an inevitable deviance that comes with a hedonistic lifestyle. Oliver pursues members of both sexes in the Saltburn household, but his intentions are far from the romantic ideal Hollywood loves to impute to gay characters. What starts off as “Call Me By Your Name,” quickly turns toward “The Talented Mr. Ripley” — a tale of unrequited love transforms into a psychosexual thriller.
Although it would be wise for parents and children to watch separately, the psychological suspense is worth sitting through a few uncomfortable moments. Through various twists and turns, the viewer eventually realizes that Oliver’s soft-spoken demeanor conceals a ruthless will to dominate. His lies on class and circumstance begin to unravel and we learn what an ambitious social climber he really is.
Fennel finds it hard to blame him.
“It was important that we understood from the get-go why, against our better judgment, we would all want to be at Saltburn, and would do anything to get in and anything to stay,” she said in an interview. But this desire is not as universal as she thinks.
The estate (shot appropriately in a 14th century manor) is expertly accoutered in all its gothic glory. Its wood paneled halls are filled with centuries of relics, both beautiful and as intriguing as the stories they tell. The aesthetic appeal of the estate is meant to complement the lives of its inhabitants. Yet its grandeur stands in stark contrast to their lack of discipline. No one so capricious could maintain such an estate for long, let alone build it. To a viewer unenthralled by the nightly dinner parties, orgiastic romps, and endless leisure time — or just wise enough to know better — the ornamentation of the setting seems to overcompensate for the hollowness within. But this is lost on Oliver, and perhaps even the director.
Caution: spoilers ahead.
— seymour🪱 nbc’s saturday night (@stvbuscemi) December 2, 2023
It’s revealed that Oliver was never destitute, shy, or humble. Rather, he carefully designed this image to initiate a relationship with Felix and feed his family exactly what they wanted to hear. They wanted to feel good about taking in someone less fortunate without truly caring about how they helped him. All that mattered was that it evoked a sense of magnanimity and saved them from a summer of abject boredom.
They believed giving Oliver a taste of their life — represented by a spectacular send-off party — was an act of noble generosity, but failed to take the lessons from their own lives. Once one embraces a life of pure indulgence, there is no satiating it; it must be pursued to oblivion. As Oliver picks them off one by one, they only realize after it’s too late.
— Saltburn (@Saltburnfilm) November 23, 2023
The final scene shows Oliver as the sole inheritor of Saltburn. A single shot follows him as he dances naked through the halls in the reverse pathway that he first came in. He revels in pure decadence, an open display of power. He has conquered this ancient house. (RELATED: Hollywood’s Latest Blockbuster Wages War On The Legacy Of Great Men)
The ending is bittersweet, and despite potential moral qualms, we can’t help but feel a sense of satisfaction for Oliver.
On the one hand, it acknowledges a refreshing moral reality. Aristocracy, empire, modern civilization itself — all were built on conquest, which often required breaking the rules. In an age when our cultural arbiters do nothing but look back with scorn, it is refreshing to see a movie cheer as its anti-hero replicates the same tactics against an ancient family who once surely did the same.
But on the other, Oliver is alone in a grand house, having destroyed anything of meaning in his life — his studies, his own family, and the kind strangers that took him in. We wonder what’s left for him to do once the credits roll. In his hubris, it seems inevitable he will follow the family down their primrose path. Fennel does not see much wrong with this — he “swallowed” the rich whole, and now gets to live out his fantasy. He is a victor enjoying the spoils of war.
While Fennel undeniably roots for the family’s demise, she is too intoxicated by their lifestyle to truly hate them. This is what sets “Saltburn” apart from other “eat the rich” films. She doesn’t claim disingenuously to hate them on principle, but through Oliver, admits quite earnestly that she wants what they have. Their downfall isn’t part of a moral arc toward justice. It comes from an upstart getting what he wants rather than what he deserves. We can disagree with her value judgments, but it doesn’t make “Saltburn” any less an original and riveting thriller.