We’re all familiar with a fish-out-of-water story by now. The trope usually consists of putting someone in a situation or location that they’re not familiar with. This can be achieved either by introducing an outsider to a known location or putting an everyman in an alien scenario. Set in the United Kingdom, Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn (2023) does this by showing the story through the eyes of a middle-class student, played by Barry Keoghan, and putting him in the circle of an upper-class family, acquainted through a popular student played by Jacob Elrodi. The juxtaposition, therefore, should come from the perspective of someone the viewer understands and relates with, interacting in an absurd environment, in this case, an ordinary student situated around over-the-top rich people living in a bizarrely big mansion.
However, Saltburn instead decides not to commit to giving the viewer the full picture of either side of the spectrum. We don’t get to relate completely with the protagonist, as the history of Keoghan’s character is hidden for most of the runtime. Yet, we also do not get a chance to understand Elrodi’s family except from Keoghan’s point of view. This does prove to be beneficial in a way, especially in terms of inducing tension in the viewer and making us doubt the reliability of Keoghan’s eyes.
Still, this decision has a downside: as a side effect, every character becomes a caricature. If everything every character does is in question, then everyone is relegated to cardboard cutouts without clear motivations. Suppose neither the ‘fish’ nor the ‘sea’ is well-defined enough, then the audience is left alienated, unable to relate to anything or ground themselves in any sort of realism in the context of the movie.
This method effectively displaces the viewer, making us feel estranged, akin to a horror movie, where everything is amiss. If the intention of the film was to disturb, then it succeeds profoundly, as no one coming out of watching Saltburn would feel any aftertaste but distress. The problem only lies in interpreting the movie’s message, other than the simplest one-sentence statement about class struggle, and beyond wanting the audience to feel repulsion. By punishing the viewer for ever believing whatever the story spoonfed, it confuses without saying anything particularly cogent or coherent. In short, “Saltburn” mixes a fish-out-of-water story by making the leading man an unreliable narrator, which makes it an incredible horror when it works and a muddled mess when it doesn’t.
In comparison, there are other films with unreliable narrators, such as Todd Phillips’ Joker, or absurd narratives, such as Yorgos Lanthimos’ Lobster. But in both cases, they are consistent in their message and the way they tell them. In Joker, the main character believes his own unreliable narration, so the audience can still relate to him and trust his untrustworthiness.
And in Lobster’s case, the rules of its absurd world remain fixed, and we stay with the protagonist’s perspective until the movie’s end. The absurdity of the concept does not diminish the experience when it is uncompromising. Another example is Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, which puts the usual noir detective we’re conditioned to relate to in a foreign environment, that of a mental asylum. Yet we are always on the character’s side; as he discovers something, we find it out with him, too. As we doubt his point of view, so does he.
However, in “Saltburn,” there are things that the protagonist knows, but the audience doesn’t, for example, Elrodi’s death. Here, the viewer is not on the same page as the one being viewed. The audience is tricked into believing it’s a suicide or some other cause, tricked into thinking Keoghan is oblivious to the event. The film mostly unfolds from Keoghan’s perspective, so by that logic, this scene should have been shown since it is a part of his experience. Omitting it tricks the audience into thinking that Keoghan had nothing to do with the events not shown before revealing at the end that he did.
There was no other narrative reason to remove these scenes chronologically from the audience other than to keep the vague pretense of tension. It is a tactic to keep the audience wondering who to trust. However, the decision not to commit to providing the narrative with a clear perspective causes some events to lack emotional depth, as we are sometimes on the same page as Elrodi’s family in terms of the knowledge we have about an event (i.e., Elrodi’s. Still, we are trapped behind the shoulders of Keoghan’s character most of the time. By being on no one’s side, characters become nothing but tricks of hand, tools to surprise the audience, and nothing else. Without the complete picture, the viewer is kicked out of the character’s headspace and forced to distrust anything happening on screen.
*Spoilers end here*
If it turns out I’ve actually kept something from you, introduce a twist in this second to last paragraph, a change of opinion, you would feel whiplash, wouldn’t you? Everything you’ve read until now would lose all credibility. Would you even care what I have to say next in this article? In Saltburn, this strategy is particularly effective in shocking and catalyzing an emotional response from the viewer but utterly fails at making the audience feel connected to any of the characters in the film or be invested in the plot, as there is no one perspective or audience substitute that we can rely on.
The quality of the movie’s production is another thing entirely, as the beautiful cinematography proves, and having a boxed aspect ratio makes each actor’s exemplary acting stand out that much more. But disregarding the subtle detail of every character’s facial twitch, the audience’s immersion is still in doubt. Doubting the story means none of the characters’ fates would matter, and no amazingly acted scene or beautiful shot could make up for it. Perhaps that is why Saltburn has been so divisive, some claiming it pretentious, with the boxed aspect ratio and all, others loving it, and the rest wholly disgusted by it.
That’s the problem when the movie has no clear voice to offer, as every viewer takes away things in different directions. And maybe nothing is misconstrued if there never was any substance to misconstrue in the first place. In Saltburn, everyone and everything acts absurdly, which means the absurdity loses its merit, but can there be merit in a movie that doesn’t say anything? Or is Saltburn ambiguous enough that it gets away with being able to mean anything to anyone?