One of the most popular – and shocking – movies that premiered last year was Saltburn, starring Barry Keoghan and Jacob Elordi. This movie is at times comedic and horrifying at others, several scenes caused many viewers not to watch with their parents. Following a downtrodden Oliver (Keoghan) and rich Felix (Elordi), the pair become friends at Oxford University and later spend the summer at Saltburn, Felix’s family’s home. Continue reading for our complete Saltburn review and remember, if you haven’t watched the movie yet there will be spoilers ahead.
Saltburn Review – Breaking Down Plot, Setting, Characters
An Examination of Rich vs. Poor
The main plot line of Saltburn is the connection between “downtrodden” Oliver and rich Felix, and how this relationship takes an obsessive turn that eventually leads to the deaths of all four Cattons. Oliver meets Felix for the first time when he peers out of the window of his Oxford rooms and realizes the power and attraction he has for him. They officially meet when Felix has a flat tire and Oliver offers his bike to him, setting them on a whirlwind friendship that pulls Oliver into the cool crowd and gets him invited to the luxurious Saltburn grounds to spend the summer.
Oliver spends his days getting to know each family member and their machinations, playing upon each one to keep himself at the house and drive others away, such as Farleigh and Pamela. As Oliver and Felix become inseparable, Oliver’s birthday rolls around and Felix decides to surprise him with a visit to his mother.
It turns out that Oliver lives in a middle-class neighborhood with a kind (non-alcoholic) mother and a caring father (who is actually not dead), and of course he has sisters (claiming he was an only child). We gets hints of Oliver’s intelligence and psyche from his mother, who claims he is extraordinarily smart and wanted to be an only child, foreshadowing what’s to come for both Oliver and the Cattons.
Felix is beside himself with anger and the two break apart. Still being a good friend, Felix allows him to stay at Saltburn for his party and to leave the next day. But when morning arrives Oliver is still there, Felix is dead, and we have officially set off the whirlwind events that will leave Venetia dead not long after, Sir James dead years later, and Oliver sitting on Elsbeth’s bed in Saltburn as he pulls out her breathing tube.
If this isn’t shocking enough, Oliver gets to stay at Saltburn earning his place as “one of them” and ends the film dancing around naked in the house as he proclaims his triumph. Needless to say, I was slack-jawed by the end of this film.
Mysterious Yet Charming
There are two main settings in Saltburn — Oxford University and Saltburn itself. While Oxford University is chaotic and typical of a popular college setting with alcohol, parties, and students everywhere, Saltburn is vastly different. Though the Cattons held a birthday party for Oliver with hundreds of people there, that was the only time Saltburn was filled with people. The rest of the time the large estate was only home to the Cattons, Farleigh, and Oliver.
You could include the staff in the setting of Saltburn too, for they were all mysterious and hidden amongst various passageways in the estate. I think this is what increases the gothic feel of the movie since there is so much history and architecture in the building, but for the most part, all the Cattons see is somewhere to lounge around. Perhaps this is another reason why Oliver takes the Cattons out of the picture, to preserve Saltburn in his image, and keep alive the “persona” of the estate.
Of course, we can’t forget Oliver’s house either, as it becomes an important setting only because it proves to Felix that Oliver has been lying the whole time about where he lives, who his parents are, and the siblings he has. It gives a stark contrast to everything we have believed about Oliver so far in the movie, and propels the downward spiral of both Oliver and the Cattons.
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Smothered in Secrets and Lies
Following the idea of the relationship between the Cattons and Oliver, there are some clever details interwoven into the whole film that instill this idea of “fakeness” and how none of the characters are true to themselves or the people around them. Oliver lies throughout the whole film, yet he portrays an immense honesty for the way he feels about Felix, and how he is his only friend. This is why Oliver claims he lied — to be Felix’s friend.
The real “fakeness” emerges in the Cattons though. Each family member seems a little off compared to normal people, and it’s interesting to see whether people point this peculiarity to their wealth or their relationships with each other. To me, Felix is the most normal of the group acting effectively as the glue, so when he dies the whole family falls apart. He tries to be a good student, but the reality is Felix already has money and popularity so he doesn’t need to try hard at anything. This leads to Oliver’s obsession with Felix and his eventual doom.
By comparison, Felix’s sister Venetia is quite broken, having an eating disorder and a competition with Felix about his “toys” and who gets to keep them. Oliver has to make her eat, and after Felix’s death, she is completely shattered, slashing her wrists in the bathtub not long after. However, this was prompted by Oliver, who placed the blades on her bathtub.
The two most “fake” people though are the parents, Elspeth and Sir James. After Felix’s death, they pretended everything was normal, and I was shocked at the way they acted. It was as if they had never had a son in the first place, and it was very similar after Venetia’s death too. They claimed it was because they were cold-blooded, but maybe the real truth is that they didn’t care enough about their surroundings to even care about their children. It all seemed like a performance for an unknown audience, and I kept waiting for the shoe to drop.
Finally, going back to Oliver, his character was the most fascinating. The most real character out of the group, he was also the most manipulating, obsessive, and pathological. Lying about who he was, Oliver created a persona that was harmless and beaten down, perfect for Felix to attach himself to and make friends with. After effectively fitting himself into the Catton family, Oliver broke them down from the inside out, finally eliminating all of the Cattons so he could have Saltburn for himself.
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Is Saltburn Based on a Book?
Saltburn is based on neither a book nor a real-life story, rather it is an original concept by the writer and director Emerald Fennell. In an interview with Another Magazine, Fennell explained that the inspiration was drawn from several things, including some gothic books — LP Hartley’s The Go-Between, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Fennell also commented on her own experience at Oxford, but the main exploration she wanted was the idea of obsession filtered through a gothic-horror lens.
What is the Point of Saltburn?
Saltburn aimed to explore the idea of desire in some of its rawest forms to show how destructive desire can be, especially in Oliver’s case when it intertwines with pure obsession. Right from the beginning of the movie, you can see Oliver’s entanglement with Felix as his voiceover talks about the power Felix had over everyone, including him.
It also shows how lies and deceit can eat away at a family. Each member of the Catton family was manipulated by Oliver, as he used carefully constructed answers and leading explanations about other family members to induce doubt. You could also mention the money piece of the film, where none of the Cattons seem “real” compared to Oliver, a comment made by Venetia towards the beginning of his stay at Saltburn. This increases the lies and deceit, because if the Cattons are all “fake” then how could they ever know the truth about each other?
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I’m not sure if I’ve ever watched a film like Saltburn before. Its gothic atmosphere and obsessive nature draw you into the film but also push you away with graphic and horrifying images of what can happen when desire goes too far. There were times when I was confused and horrified, and yet there’s still something about this movie that is memorable in a good way.
If you want to take a step out of your movie comfort zone and try a film that doesn’t truly fit in any box, make sure to check out Saltburn.
Director: Emerald Fennell
- Visually entrancing
- Engaging characters
- Some graphic content
- Fast pacing at the end