- Saltburn examines themes of desire and obsession, with Oliver’s intense passion for Felix driving the plot.
- The film touches on class issues, but fails to provide meaningful commentary on the class divide.
- While Saltburn has an entertaining twist ending, its messaging about the rich and poor is problematic and unsubstantiated.
Saltburn is one of the most baffling movies of the year, with a lot of mixed messaging about its themes of wealth, obsession, and the class divide – so what is it all about? Set in 2000s England, Saltburn stars Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick, a middle-class Oxford student, and Jacob Elordi as the object of his desire, Felix Catton, a spoilt rich kid who invites Oliver to stay at his family’s enormous estate – the eponymous Saltburn – over the summer break. Oliver got into Oxford due to his hard work and determination; Felix got in due to his family’s absurd riches and academic connections.
It marks the sophomore effort of writer-director Emerald Fennell, who first broke out in 2020 with her Oscar-winning thriller Promising Young Woman. Promising Young Woman was very clear in its messaging and its righteous cause; it’s a rallying cry against a culture that turns a blind eye to rampant misogyny and sexual assault. But the messaging of Saltburn isn’t quite as clear. It has a lot of contradictory ideas, and its most exciting twists also carry its most problematic messages. There’s a lot to unpack in Saltburn – what exactly is the deeper meaning of this polarizing movie?
1 Genius Saltburn Detail Foreshadowed Felix’s Fate (& You Probably Missed It)
Saltburn is packed with details that foreshadow the movie’s biggest twists, and one subtle but brilliant one hints at Felix’s tragic fate.
Saltburn Is About Desire & Obsession (Is It Also About Love?)
At its core, Saltburn examines the themes of desire and obsession. Oliver feels an intense, passionate desire for Felix, and becomes dangerously obsessed with him throughout the film. When he heads to Saltburn to stay with the Cattons, his desire and obsession spill over into the estate. He desires the luxuries that the Cattons take for granted – the giant house, the private pool, the 24-hour waitstaff, etc. – and becomes obsessed with their upper-class one-percenter lifestyle. It’s possible to include love as a part of the thematic exploration of desire and obsession, and Saltburn certainly addresses the topic of love even if it doesn’t present it in a particularly pure form.
In his very first lines to the audience, Oliver says that everyone thought he was in love with Felix, but insists that he wasn’t. However, that line in itself insinuates that Oliver was, indeed, in love with Felix – perhaps Oliver doth protest too much. Whether Oliver truly loved Felix or not, Saltburn is really about an obsessive desire and the lengths that someone will go to get what they desire. Since Oliver’s sexual desires also turn to Felix’s sister, Venetia, and his cousin, Farleigh – not just Felix – and Oliver is shown to be callous and cold-hearted, it’s possible that he never loved Felix; he was just sexually attracted to him.
Saltburn has earned two Golden Globe nominations: Best Actor for Barry Keoghan and Best Supporting Actress for Rosamund Pike.
Is Saltburn About Class? Its Themes Of Wealth Explained
One of the most common themes associated with Saltburn is class. Classism and the class divide are huge issues in the UK and, on the surface, Saltburn touches on those issues. Felix takes a shine to Oliver because his lower-class background makes him a novelty. Felix is used to being around obscenely wealthy people, so the fact that Oliver doesn’t come from money fascinates him. But despite its setup as a fish-out-of-water story about a middle-class 99-percent kid being invited into the inner circle of the one percent, Saltburn largely backs away from any sort of commentary on the class problem.
The lack of any kind of commentary on the class divide is a big problem for the movie because, in the absence of that, it’s essentially just saying that the rich are sexy and interesting and the lower classes will spoil the fun for them – or even worse – if they’re nice enough to let them in. The twist ending of Saltburn, which reveals that Oliver actually conspired to pick off the Cattons one by one to steal their wealth, seems to support the idea of maintaining the status quo. If the rich are nice to the poor, then the poor will kill them and usurp their fortune.
Is Saltburn Supposed To Be A Victory For Oliver?
There’s a sense of an “eat the rich” message at the end of Saltburn, because the Cattons all meet a grim fate at the hands of Oliver and he makes off with their estate and their fortune. But, by that point, Oliver has become impossible to root for. In the final scenes, Fennell reveals that Oliver is an emotionless sociopath singularly focused on getting what he wants. He doesn’t care what he has to do or who he has to kill to inherit the luxuries he desires. When he starts killing Cattons left and right, it’s hard to continue to see him as the protagonist.
The “eat the rich” message has become a popular trend in Hollywood movies and TV shows in recent years. In the past few years, this theme has been explored in Parasite, Glass Onion, The Menu, Triangle of Sadness, and The White Lotus. But in all those stories, when the amoral rich characters get what they deserve, the lower-class characters responsible aren’t painted as psychotic villains like Oliver. Plus, even if audiences could still root for Oliver by the end of Saltburn, the class divide remains exactly the same. Oliver doesn’t give back to the poor; he just takes the Cattons’ place in the exclusionary one percent.
10 Best Movies Like Saltburn
Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn joins a list of visually captivating films exploring themes of class and queer love plus another movie with Barry Keoghan.
Saltburn Is Entertaining, But Struggles With Its Bigger Ideas
Ultimately, Saltburn is a confused movie. It could – and maybe should – have been a fun, entertaining thriller. The final twist that reveals Oliver to be a conniving criminal mastermind draws parallels with The Talented Mr. Ripley. Fennell masterfully pulls off the jaw-dropping rug-pull that makes any great thriller work. The audience has spent the whole movie following Oliver, invested in his story, going along with his unreliable narration, and then the film’s ending flips that dynamic on its head and shows that Oliver was the villain all along. Saltburn just about works on that level as a compelling thriller with an unexpected twist ending.
But it’s clear that Saltburn isn’t intended to just be a schlocky, twisty thriller. Fennell obviously has bigger ideas in mind and the movie tries to tackle larger societal issues, but the messaging just feels off. If it carries a message about the dynamic between the rich and the poor, then that message is that rich people’s fears about poor people are completely substantiated. If a rich person lets a poor person into their home to enjoy their butlers and their personal chefs, then they’ll kill them and take it. That’s a pretty problematic message for the movie to hang its hat on.