Breaking down the dark twists of “Saltburn”: A rollercoaster of obsession & deceit

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"One, Oliver, has fallen into an obsessive love for Felix. Or two, that he is extremely envious of him. The lines between love and resentment become deeply blurred, leaving the audience with quite the confusion, and it’s important to note that the distinction is never really made clear in the film." - Arts & Entertainment Editor / Al Harmon.

Since its release on Nov. 17, 2023, “Saltburn” has quite literally broken the internet, and for good reason. Since then, the film has already been nominated for “Best Picture” at the Critics Choice Awards and has also gotten multiple cast members nominated for the Golden Globes, People’s Choice Awards, and many more. 

It’s directed by Emerald Fennell, who also directed the thriller film “Promising Young Woman” back in 2020. The premise of this film is seemingly simple at first, and eventually takes the audience and throws them into a whirlwind of unrequited love, obsessiveness, and sociopathic, and psychopathic chaos. 

The film takes off with our main character, Oliver Quick (played by Barry Keoghan), arriving in his first year at Oxford University. Oliver, seemingly antisocial and mature beyond his years, becomes quite successful in convincing the audience that he is someone to sympathize with, projecting a coy, kind-hearted, and selfless demeanor. He is not only successful in convincing the audience of this, but also Felix Catton (played by Jacob Elordi), Oxford University’s sweetheart. 

Ironically, Felix’s reputation precedes him. Regardless of his social status, he is kind and welcoming to Oliver. Oliver eventually shares his struggles with Felix, matters regarding his parents being poor and struggling with substance abuse and mental health issues. Due to the tragedies Oliver’s dealt with, Felix begins offering him invitations to hang out or party with his more popular friends. After the unexpected death of Oliver’s father, Felix offers him a room at his family’s estate, Saltburn, over the summer. 

However, Oliver’s fondness for Felix soon turns unsettling and obsessive, he’s seen peering through windows and listening in on his private conversations, as though he’s secretly observing him. Throughout his stay at Saltburn, his obsessive behavior intensifies and he begins to portray some extremely bizarre and grotesque behavior, including drinking Felix’s bathwater and engaging in sexual activities with both his sister Venetia Catton (played by Alison Oliver) and cousin Farleigh Start (played by Archie Madekwe). 

At this point, as a viewer, you’re left to assume that one of two scenarios could be unraveling. One, Oliver, has fallen into an obsessive love for Felix. Or two, that he is extremely envious of him. The lines between love and resentment become deeply blurred, leaving the audience with quite the confusion, and it’s important to note that the distinction is never really made clear in the film. 

Finally, the day that the Catton’s had been planning the most luxurious party for had arrived, Oliver’s birthday. Excitedly, Felix tells him he has his surprise planned for him, and while on the road, they drive by a road sign that reads “Preston,” the town Oliver is from. And upon arrival, Felix is surprised to find that his home is quite beautiful, and not at all what he expected from Oliver’s descriptors. 

Oliver’s mother opens the door, and with no visible issues, seems like a perfectly normal and healthy woman. We soon learn she is, and we also learn that Oliver’s father is in the backyard gardening, and not deceased like he’d told Felix. Throughout the afternoon at Oliver’s parents’ house, they all chat about Oliver, how he’s the top scholar at Oxford, and on the rowing team, none of which is true. All while Felix is learning the real truth behind who Oliver truly is, a serial liar. 

This entire scene, this overlap between the two major pillars in Oliver’s life, was to me one of the hardest watches in the entire film, yet also the most satisfying. It’s the only scene where we see Oliver in a powerless state when he realizes he can no longer escape his constant manipulation of the people he values most in his life. Unfortunately, that satisfaction got ripped out from under me when I realized that this total crash and burn would end up becoming Oliver’s motivation to act out even further. 

During the night of the party, Oliver ends up murdering Felix, and gets away with it, using Farleigh to frame him for Felix’s murder. We as viewers soon realize that Felix is the pillar that holds the Catton family together, and without him, they begin to fall apart. Then comes Venetia’s monologue, which opens the window that allows viewers to truly see Oliver for who he is, and fully opens our eyes to the fact that he planned this all along. Not in just Felix’s death, but even in meeting Felix and making his way into Saltburn. She calls him a “moth”, drawn to shiny things, and secretly making his holes in Saltburn. 

Throughout the remainder of the film, he finds ways to slowly but surely, pick off the rest of Catton. Once he convinces Elspeth Catton (Felix’s mother) to change her will to make Oliver the sole heir, she dies as well, leaving Saltburn all to himself, which was ultimately his goal all along. 

Aside from all of the “#JacobElordiBathwater” jokes and “Saltburn Graveyard Scene” chatter, this film was extremely well-written and thought out. And all while deep-diving into the mind of a sociopath, is quite the rollercoaster, to say the least. 

However, I can’t help but feel as though there was little justice done for the characters surrounding Oliver. With the lack of character development, they act more as sitting ducks in Oliver’s plan towards the end of the film rather than actual characters with their own stories. We are also left with so many questions, like how did Elspeth end up in a coma? What happened to Farleigh when he returned to the US? Will the Catton’s butlers continue to serve Oliver? Are there other Cattons? All of these questions are left unanswered and would’ve served much more substance to the film’s catastrophic ending. Without these answers, the ending does feel a bit empty, but maybe that was Fennell’s goal all along. We may never know. 

Regardless, “Saltburn” obtains that remarkable eeriness that makes the viewer want to look away from the screen but literally can’t, a skill that is only really mastered by a few filmmakers. Not only is the plot captivating in and of itself, but it has some beautiful visuals as well as a soundtrack. 

So if you’re looking for that strange film that will leave you thinking about it for a couple of days, definitely give “Saltburn” a try. You either won’t regret it, or you might.

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