Welcome to our Colossus Movie Guide for Saltburn. This guide contains our detailed library of content covering key aspects of the movie’s plot, ending, meaning, and more. We encourage your comments to help us create the best possible guide. Thank you!
What is Saltburn about?
One way to read Saltburn is, like Parasite, as a film focused on economic class disparities. Felix and the Catton family represent the top-end ultra-wealthy. While Oliver is the rest of us. Except I wouldn’t recommend that reading. Rather, I’d say Saltburn is like 2010’s The Social Network or 2001’s American Psycho. Both movies are portraits of their times.
For example, while The Social Network was ostensibly about the creation of Facebook, it was really a glass-half-empty look at an archetype of Millennial culture: the young Internet-age entrepreneur who sacrifices personal relationships in the pursuit of digital-business glory. Workaholics have always existed, of course, but The Social Network was commentary on the zeitgeist of the mid-to-late aughts. And many Zuckerbergian-figures have emerged in the years since. American Psycho is based on a 1991 novel that took a similar but much more exaggerated look at the emerging Wall Street Bro culture of the late-80s.
Saltburn does the same. And even though it’s set in 2006/2007, it’s about now. Specifically, about the pursuit of style over substance. Style at the cost of substance. Emerald Fennell’s Oliver Quick is like American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. No humanity, no morality. Simply a yearning. For Bateman, it was a yearning to fit in, to stand with his peers, even as he raged about them. For Oliver, it’s to have that thing you see others have. Which is very much an issue in our modern era where everyone’s on social media and constantly bombarded with curated images of lifestyles above and beyond your own.
Movie Guide table of contents
- Oliver Quick – Barry Keoghan
- Felix Catton – Jacob Elordi
- Venetia Catton (Felix’s sister) – Alison Oliver
- Elsbeth (Felix’s mother) – Rosamund PIke
- Sir James (Felix’s father) – Richard E. Grant
- Farleigh (Felix’s Cousin) – Archie Madekwe
- Duncan – Paul Rhys
- Pamela – Carey Mulligan
- Written by – Emerald Fennell
- Directed by – Emerald Fennell
The ending of Saltburn explained
The end of Saltburn begins in the aftermath of Oliver’s successful takeover of Saltburn through the systematic annihilation of the Catton family. First Felix, then Venetia, followed by Sir James, and, lastly, Elsbeth. Having become Elsbeth’s caretaker, Felix inherits the entire estate.
We do have the brief bit where Oliver provides exposition to Elsbeth before removing her breathing tube. It’s a continuation of the film’s opening where Oliver ponders if he was in love with Felix. In answer to that question of “But wasn’t I in love with him?” Oliver explains that he actually hated Felix. “I hated all of you.”
The final scene is Felix, alone in the house, dancing room to room, completely naked, in celebration of his possession.
The simplest way to view Saltburn’s ending is as a celebration. Oliver wanted Saltburn. He got Saltburn. His nude dance through the house is a wanton display of possession. And a lack of shame. He doesn’t, for a second, feel bad or shy about the path he took, the family he abandoned, the murders he committed. For him, the end justified the means. The four stones he has on the puppet box, the stones that were part of the Catton tradition to mourn the dead, aren’t there in memory of Felix, Venetia, Sir James, and Elsbeth. Rather, they’re Oliver’s trophies. The way a hunter might mount the heads of slain beasts. And the puppet box would seem to refer to the fact Oliver played the puppeteer, engineering the downfall of the family and his eventual ownership of their wealth.
That’s the short of what’s going on. But there’s a lot more to discuss.
Style vs Substance
Early in the Oxford portion of Saltburn, Oliver reads an essay to his professor. Both the professor and Farleigh, the only other student in the tutorial, try to hide their extreme boredom. But Farleigh eventually criticizes Oliver for using “thus” four times. To which Oliver responds that Farlegih’s attacking the style rather than the substance (which is generally a cheap debate tactic often used when the person has nothing substantive to say or wants to muddy the waters). Farleigh, though, counters with the notion that style is everything.
That dialogue is something that’s easily forgotten as Saltburn rolls on but it’s essentially the thesis of the film. Oliver begins as someone who has prioritized substance rather than style. Which is why one of the first things we see is the reaction to how he dresses. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the Cattons. They’re in possession of all the style anyone could ever want but the substance is quite lacking. Except for Felix. He’s the balance. Someone who has both style and substance.
Viewed this way, Saltburn becomes a story about the pursuit of style. It’s less a commentary on class dynamics (like Parasite) and more a cautionary tale about the kind of person who would sacrifice all their substance in order to possess things and appear a certain way.
You may remember a 2017 movie called Ingrid Goes West. Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) is a young woman who obsesses over a social media influencer, Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen), to the point of moving to Los Angeles in order to meet-cute. How? She kidnaps Tyalor’s dog then pretends to be the one to have found it. The two become friends and Ingrid experiences the influencer’s world. Eventually, the truth comes out. The friendship crumbles.
At the very end, Ingrid records a video for Instagram where she admits to everything she did and her mental health woes. It’s honest and painful and resonates pretty strongly as it hits on a lot of relatable self-esteem issues. There’s a codifying line, “If you don’t have anyone to share anything with, then what’s the point of living?” Then she attempts to take her own life.
She wakes up in the hospital, saved by her ex who still cares for her, and her video has gone viral. She reads comment after comment from people who support her, who are giving her the time and attention she had given to Taylor. The movie ends with Ingrid’s smile, causing you to wonder if this was her plan all along.
Ingrid Goes West is a relatively grounded attempt at tackling the coveting of someone else’s lifestyle in the time of social media. Where Saltburn is a lot more exaggerated and fantastic and outrageous. You can see this stylistic dichotomy between films like The Social Network and American Psycho.
When The Social Network came out in 2010, it looked at the founding of Facebook but used its grounded portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg as a cautionary tale about an emerging figure of Millennial culture—the 20-something Internet-era entrepreneur who would give up their personal life to build an empire.
American Psycho was originally a novel published in 1991. The 2001 film stays mostly true to the book. The story is a reaction to the Wall Street Bro culture of the late-80s. Where The Social Network remains realistic, American Psycho opts for hyperbole. It exaggerates the vapidness, the sameness, the superficiality, then goes even further by making Patrick Bateman an absolute psychopath. He serves as a kind of mythologized final-form for someone in that culture. A warning sign. A line not to cross.
Movies that deconstruct figures or vibes from a particular zeitgeist are pretty common. And they do tend to sort themselves into realistic or fantastic. Saltburn leans into the fantastic. And while it isn’t specifically about social media the way Ingrid Goes West is, it’s born from this time where conniving superficiality is a recipe for success. In politics, on social media, in business.
So a lot of what’s going on at the end of Saltburn has this style versus substance dynamic at its core. With that in mind, you should be thinking about who are the Olivers of the world, not just in pop culture but in your day to day life? And have you maybe been sacrificing substance for the sake of style?
Theseus and the Minotaur
Oliver kills Felix in the center of a maze, under a statue of a minotaur. Because of that, we have to discuss Greek mythology.
Minos, the king of Crete, was supposed to sacrifice this impressive bull to Poseidon, god of the sea, but he wanted to keep the bull so decided to sacrifice a lesser one. This made Poseidon mad so he cursed Minos’s wife to fall in love with the bull. Yadda yadda. She gave birth to a half-man, half-bull that everyone called the Minotaur. It was angry and ate people. Minos was appropriately confused so asked the oracle for advice and the oracle told him to put it in a maze. Famously called the Labyrinth. The builder? Daedalus. We’ll come back to him.
So some time later, the Athenians did some stuff and it resulted in the death of Minos’s son. Minos went to war, won, then further punished the Athenians by forcing them to send random young adults into the Labyrinth to face the Minotaur. Not once. But on a schedule. That went on for a while. Until Theseus came around. Theseus was the prince of the Athenians and swore to slay the Minotaur. To that end, he wooed Mino’s daughter, Ariadne. She hooked him up with some thread so he could navigate the Labyrinth. He killed the Minotaur.
A hero, right?
Sailing back from the Labyrinth, Theseus ditched Ariadne on an island. Then continued home. And it gets worse! His dad, King Aegeus, had instructed that if Theseus was alive to put up a white sail. But if his son was dead, to fly a black sail. Guess which one Theseus had up? Distraught at the belief his son was dead, King Aegeus jumped off a cliff into what became known as the Aegean Sea. Who was the new king? Theseus.
To review: Theseus is a seemingly heroic figure who kills someone in a maze, then ditches the person who had helped him, then inherits an entire kingdom because he accidentally tricks his father into suicide.
Oliver is a seemingly likable guy who kills someone in a maze then inherits an entire estate because he murders the people who had helped him.
Citing that kind of connection is the sort of thing that causes some people to say you’re reaching. And that would be true if there wasn’t a direct reference in the film. But because Emerald Fennell put in the Minotaur statue and featured it at an important point in the plot, you need to at least consider the story of Theseus. And when you do, you begin to see a similar overall journey.
That’s often what adaptations do. The Lion King with Hamlet. Clueless with Emma by Jane Austen. Apocalypse Now with the novella Heart of Darkness. Those films change the time, place, and character names, but they make enough references that people can eventually find the connection to the source material. For Apocalypse Now, it’s a boat trip through a jungle, a mysterious figure with the name Kurtz, and the famous line “The horror, the horror.”
After Theseus escaped the Labyrinth, Minos had to blame someone and decided it was the builder of the Labyrinth, Daedelus, and his son, Icarus. So Minos imprisoned them both. Daedalus, skilled as he was, constructed two sets of wings that he and Icarus could use to fly from their prison. The father cautioned the son not to fly too high or low, but Icarus, amazed by the invention, soared higher and higher. Too close to the sun. The wings melted.
What was Felix wearing at the costume party? Wings. Which initially just seems like a low-effort attempt at being an angel. But the maze, the Minotaur, and his death all point toward an Icarus reference. In order to confirm that, we’d expect some kind of “fly too close to the sun” aspect of the story. In this case it’s probably the wealth. We refer to the wealthy as the upper class. The richer someone is, the more up they are. The death of Felix signals a total descent of the family.
Bringing it all together
There’s this excellent movie from 2017 called Nightcrawler. It’s an underdog story where Jake Gyllenhaal starts a small business, works hard to overcome fierce competition, and manages to maneuver his way to success. That’s the American dream, right? Except the character does this by lying, manipulating, and setting someone up to die. He’s actually despicable and unlikable but thinks he’s a good guy.
Nightcrawler is structured to mirror heartwarming films like The Pursuit of Happyness, The Mighty Ducks, Dodgeball, The Blind Side, Kung Fu Panda, The Karate Kid, Rocky. We typically admire the person who works hard and rises up from nothing. But Nightcrawler makes the hero a villain and uses that to make a sharp, sharp criticism of modern capitalism and the kind of behavior and person it now rewards. The person who succeeds is no longer the one who does things the right way, the honest way. It’s the bad guy.
Saltburn is doing a similar thing. It uses the Theseus myth but flips the hero into a villain. Which you can read as a broader commentary on the kind of person who is rising up in the world and how they’re getting there. Oliver presents himself as gentle and kind but is, behind the scenes, devious and irredeemable. In front of people at a funeral, he’ll act the perfect figure of grief and mourning. Once they go away, he turns deviant and has sex with a grave.
Again, it’s hard not to think of our social media era and the duality of who people present themselves to be versus who they really are. Instagram vs reality. “But wasn’t that already a thing?” Definitely. Who someone is at work could be completely different from who they are outside of work. Celebrities who seemed so charming on Johnny Carson or Jay Leno could be, in private, awful. Ellen DeGeneres hosted a talk show based on the mantra “be kind” only for it to come out that she was toxic to her guests, staff, and crew.
But social media has given us unprecedented access to people, famous or not, in a way that feels more intimate, personal, and real. So even though the duality already existed, it has evolved in a way that people are still grappling with and exploring.
Because Oliver is the main character, we follow him. And because he’s not wealthy like Felix, most of us relate to him. He’s who we would be in that situation. Which is why we’re probably, initially, rooting for him to fit in and figure it out. Because we would want the same thing for ourselves. We hope we’d be liked enough to get the invite, that we’d be cool enough to fit in, if only given the opportunity.
That initial identification starts to erode as Oliver reveals more of himself. The “vampire” scene with Venetia. The spying on Felix. The manipulation of Farleigh. Then when the reveal comes that Oliver lied about his dad’s death and his background—there’s a sense of revulsion. Of betrayal. We aren’t like that. We wouldn’t (hopefully) lie like that. Then it gets worse, with the whole murdering. This isn’t someone we identify with.
The Cattons represent an old model of being and thinking, of substance and style. While Ollie is a new kind of figure. A Theseus for the 21st century. With terrifying implications.
The themes and meaning of Saltburn
People aren’t always who they seem
Because Ollie is our point of view character, it’s easy to, initially, take him at face value. If he was up to something nefarious, we would see it, right? So this theme isn’t obvious right away despite the fact the entire first portion of the movie is a deception. While his character journey is the major example of someone not being who they seem, it comes up throughout the film.
For example, the way Elsbeth talks. She’ll say one thing but mean something else entirely. It’s similar to how in the American South “Bless your heart” is used as a polite way to insult someone or condescend. This is most obvious when Elsbeth has conversations with her friend, Pamela, and almost always says the opposite of what she means. “Stay as long as you need” actually means “You should leave, as soon as possible.”
Another example? The professor that Oliver and Farleigh have. The professor recalls how he went to school with Farleigh’s mom. When Farleigh says he’ll tell his mom about it, the professor pulls back and explains that they weren’t close. That they never even talked. That she probably doesn’t even know he existed. That he was an admirer from afar. That’s played for a laugh but is part of this overall atmosphere of who people present themselves as, versus the reality of it.
Duncan the butler is another example. You know Duncan hates Oliver. But he never shows it and only ever says the polite things you would expect from a butler.
And then the movie itself is an example. Oliver isn’t an unreliable narrator. Emerald Fennell is. She could have shown us the truth about Ollie from the beginning. Like if we had heard that early phone call with his mom. Instead, Fennell cuts from Ollie answering to his arrival at Felix’s room, where he claims he just found out about his father’s death. It’s the cut that deceives us. We have no reason to not believe Oliver is telling the truth.
This matching of form and function is typically utilized in aspects of sensory. For example, if a character gets knocked out, the screen goes black. Or if they’re running, the camera shakes. It’s a bit more advanced to tell a story about deception and use the editing to also deceive the viewer.
Out with the old, in with the new
Saltburn and the Cattons represent the old school ways of the aristocracy. The centuries old English elite. Felix’s dad isn’t just James Catton but Sir James Catton. And we see how so many rooms in the estate are more like galleries in a museum, full of ancient. priceless artifacts.
Oliver doesn’t come from that kind of tradition. His family isn’t steeped in the past but is very much a product of the present. Being in college as he is, you can go so far to say that Oliver represents the future. Or, if you want to get more specific, since this is 2006, the Millennial generation.
“Wouldn’t Felix, Venetia, and Farleigh also represent Millennials?”
Yes. But. They’re very much born and raised in the old ways. So it’s a different aspect of Millennial culture than Ollie. When Oliver brings down the Catton family and takes Saltburn for himself, you can view this as kind of a revolutionary message, both culturally and politically. But not all revolutions are good, right? As we said in the ending discussion, Oliver echoes the story of Theseus. But instead of the heroic figure, he’s the villain.
This brings us back to the comparison to The Social Network. That film wasn’t saying all Millennial Internet entrepreneurs will be anti-social creeps. Just that there’s an archetype forming and that we should be aware of it. Likewise, Saltburn isn’t saying all middle class people are Oliver or that all Millennials are Oliver. Just that it’s kind of easier than ever to be a grifter. And that con artists and superficiality seem to be winning a lot more than anyone should like. And we’re entering into a new era because of it.
Why is the movie called Saltburn?
In an interview, Emerald Fennell has said she wanted to make a Gothic. That was part of the inspiration for Saltburn’s creation. And the classic English Gothic tale usually takes place at a castle or old house. Actually, the very first Gothic ever written was called The Castle of Otranto, from 1764. Because of that, location became a bit of a naming tradition for the genre (like Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights). Especially because a core Gothic trope was the sense of travel to somewhere distant and mysterious.
So with the Gothic genre and setting in mind, the title being the place Oliver travels to is part of that literary tradition. It’s both enigmatic and magnetic. Especially for people who are outside of England and don’t know it’s a real place. It just seems like a crazy, cool made-up word that you want to know what it refers to.
“But is it a real place?”
Saltburn-by-the-Sea is a real place. In England. Located in North Yorkshire, up near Newcastle, about a 5-hour drive from London. The actual house that served as the estate in the film was the Drayton House. Which is in Northamptonshire, 73 miles (a 90-ish minute drive) north-west of London.
Honestly, I think the simple answer here is that “Saltburn” just sounds impressive. I imagine Fennell either knew of it beforehand and always thought it was a great word or in researching locations for an estate came across it and fell in love.
This is very extra and a total stretch, but there is something fitting to the individual words of “salt” and “burn”. You think about the idiom “salt in the wound” and the use of burn as a verb for being cheated or victimized. Both imply pain and betrayal. Even if that wasn’t the reason Fennell chose the title Saltburn, it’s a nice, unintentional bonus.
Important motifs in Saltburn
Saltburn is a very sensual movie. The fact that it opens with Ollie asking the rhetorical question of whether or not he was in love with Felix grounds the movie in romantics. But. You have to begin to question the implications of that. Because this isn’t a straightforward romance like Jane Austen would write or a tragedy like Atonement.
Despite Oliver’s seeming interest in Felix, he hooks up with Venetia. Then Farleigh. With Venetia, it seems genuine. Until the twist. Then you have to wonder if his dalliance with her was just as politically motivated as his tryst with Farleigh. An act that was so obviously rooted in manipulation. Later, it seems Oliver even romanced Elsbeth.
This culminates with the final scene. Oliver dancing naked through Saltburn. The nudity is no longer sensual or sexual. It’s more declarative and egotistical. “I’m naked in here because I own this sh*t”. We know how much Oliver coveted what Felix had. So what initially read as romantic, can probably be re-interpreted as possessive. Less about Felix and more about what Felix represented—wealth, prestige, respect, beauty, popularity. All the things Oliver wanted and crossed every line to get.
Questions & answers about Saltburn
Where was Saltburn shot?
Even though Fennell and the entire cast and crew had to sign NDAs and weren’t supposed to divulge the location of the house used for Saltburn, there are only so many gorgeous estates in England. People soon recognize it as the Drayton House. You know how there are cult movies? Well the Drayton House is kind of a cult house. One of those things that is loved and revered once people know about it, but it isn’t as famous as some other mansions.
The house is old. Dating back to the 1300s. Apparently the last time it was sold was 1361. It’s been passed-down and family-owned ever since. Which is why the NDAs got involved. The family still lives there and didn’t want the extra publicity.
And the scenes at Oxford were shot at Oxford.
Is Saltburn a vampire movie?
Ehhhhhh. No, in the sense that it doesn’t feature a Dracula or Morbius. But yes in that Oliver is someone who feeds on others. So a metaphorical vampire movie, sure.
Is Saltburn based on a book or Brideshead Revisited?
The short answer is: yes. Emerald Fennell actually recommended Jacob Elordi read Brideshead Revisited in preparation for the film.
They’re similar in set-up. Charles Ryder is a normal kid attending college and befriends Lord Sebastian Flyte. Sebastian brings Charles into his friend group then out to his family’s estate: Brideshead. There’s a Farleigh in Anthony Blanche. And a Venetia in Lady Julia.
But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Sebastian is an alcoholic, so you could read Felix’s death by consuming poisoned alcohol as a reference. But Brideshead Revisited has a lot more melodrama, spans many years, and is heavily about Catholicism.
Clueless is a pretty on-the-nose adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. What Saltburn does is more like Apocalypse Now in that it uses a few core elements as a foundation but ultimately tells its own story. It’s what’s called a loose adaptation.
What happened to Elsbeth?
It would seem that after running into Ollie at the coffee shop that the two began seeing each other. They probably started dating? Or had some form of intimacy. While we don’t know exactly what happened, we can assume Oliver probably poisoned her. Or somehow was responsible for the deterioration of her health. To the point where he became her sole caretaker. And probably her sole inheritor.
Now it’s your turn
Have more unanswered questions about Saltburn? Are there themes or motifs we missed? Is there more to explain about the ending? Please post your questions and thoughts in the comments section! We’ll do our best to address every one of them. If we like what you have to say, you could become part of our movie guide!