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  • Writer's pictureNoah Castellanos

Saltburn and The Talented Mr. Ripley

Originally, for this month, I’d planned on making this big huge blog post about all the movies celebrating their umpteenth anniversary this year (Grand Budapest Hotel turning 10, Mean Girls turning 20, etc.), but a certain article came across my feed the other day that hit me harder than Ghostbusters and Gremlins undoubtedly did when they released in theaters on the same day in 1984. I forget the exact name of it, but the author had made the simply inflammatory argument that the recent Amazon Prime sensation Saltburn is not only a carbon copy knock-off of the 1999 Matt Damon outing The Talented Mr. Ripley, but is little more than the latest piece of evidence detailing the downfall and unoriginality of modern pop culture. Now while I’d normally take these kinds of criticisms in stride, as everyone is obviously entitled to having their own opinion when it comes to that kind of thing, the learning of that fact came as a little bit harder to me given that the first piece I ever published for Penumbra was, in fact, a rather glowing review of Saltburn a couple months ago, and yes, while I did mention the extensive references the movie makes to others that came before it was a major detractor for me, I can’t help but feel shame towards my own creation. Like an artist being the only one to notice a stray line on what the public deems a masterpiece, I’ve spent the last few weeks in utter turmoil at the thought that my first big publication is founded on nothing but a lie, so I decided to give The Talented Mr. Ripley a watch and give my thoughts on Saltburn a bit of a do-over.

            Now, if we were just comparing apples to apples, this really wouldn’t be much of a blog. The plots to both are borderline identical: a mysterious playboy wiggles his way into the lives of the rich and famous, dodging suspicion and slowly putting themselves more and more on top of the food chain as the bodies start piling up beneath them and the themes of bisexual desire and longing for human companionship slowly whittle them down. While I do still appreciate Saltburn for its upfront tackling of sexual desire and its balance of melodrama with comedy, I’d be lying to both you and myself if I said The Talented Mr. Ripley was not the superior film in every conceivable way. The acting is more consistently superb than Saltburn, the references to Shakespeare and jazz being ingeniously woven into the plot were fun to see and having characters like Tom Ripley steadily unravel before us as motivations and revelations slowly get revealed as the movie goes on definitely makes for much more of an interactive mystery compared to the very twist-heavy ending of Saltburn.

            While I can certainly see the reasoning behind claiming Saltburn as the inferior film solely because of its blatant unoriginality, I can’t exactly say that the entire thing is now worthless because of it like others might. Even if my original review is still based on an incomplete viewing experience, I still did have fun watching Saltburn initially, and now that I’ve seen the movie/piece (since The Talented Mr. Ripley is based on a book), I can definitely say there’s enough dividing the two that I can see reasons to like both on their own. Sure, one could use Saltburn as an argument for unoriginality in modern pop culture and us, as modern audiences, settling for less instead of demanding “higher art”, as it were, but Saltburn trending on Twitter or Wednesday becoming Netflix’s third most popular show is far from a sign that we, as a society, have lost touch with the true meaning behind art - the creative drive to not only represent our own generation but inspire those for generations to come - which is an achievement that not all pieces of media are given the privilege of having.

            Being an unabashed film nerd myself, I’d be remiss if I forgot to mention the innumerable pieces of pop culture that have long since been forgotten in the eyes of consumers. For every Citizen Kane and The Godfather, there are hundreds, if not thousands of other movies that simply fall to the wayside due to a lack of relevance/influence, if massive franchises like Bulldog Drummond (1922-1969, 24 theatrical releases) and Charlie Chan (1926-1981, 49 theatrical releases) growing dormant over time are anything to go by. Course, there’ll always be some hidden gems resting between the pillars of artistic movements (like 1941’s Hellzapoppin’ coming out a couple of months after Citizen Kane, which I do recommend you watch if you’re a fan of surrealist musical-comedies), but artistic movements as a whole will always have their seminal classics that are deemed so mostly due to factors out of anyone’s control (because “time is a social construct” and blah blah blah, I never took a film class; I’m just a big fan.)

            So, at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter what you watch as long as you enjoy it. If you liked Saltburn, great! If you thought The Talented Mr. Ripley was better, that’s great, too. If all goes right, you’ll be able to take what you like (and what you don’t) and make something spectacular out of it that will be remembered for generations to come, whether it be a mildly bisexual psychological thriller-comedy or a little blog like this, so get out there and watch something new! Or old! It doesn’t matter! (The Wizard of Oz is still a very fun watch 85 years later...)



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