Let’s explore the real meaning behind Barry Keoghan’s latest film, Saltburn.
The movie, directed by Emerald Fennell, had its wide release on November 22 and, since then, is now streaming on Prime Video. The project currently has a 72% critic approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
To say the movie has been divisive would be an understatement.
A lot of that comes from some particularly gross scenes which have made their way across the internet, but there's plenty of conversation to be had about the message and themes behind Saltburn’s story.
The Meaning of Saltburn Explained
The true meaning of Saltburn lies within its exploration of desire in some of its rawest forms and how destructive it can be, especially as it starts to entangle itself with pure obsession.
The movie starts with Barry Keoghan's Oliver introducing audiences to his fascination with Felix Catton via voiceover. Viewers see that from the moment Oliver first sees Felix at Oxford, there’s a connection—at least, a one-sided one.
It doesn't take long for those desires in Oliver to manifest and start growing into a more untamable obsession. But things balloon quickly from there as Oliver does, and says whatever he can to get into Felix’s good graces.
This includes manufacturing a whole false tragic backstory and abandoning a new peer with little destination.
Oliver is so successful in his ploy that he gets invited to the Cattons' Saltburn Estate.
Now, desire is messy and unpredictable. This is no less true for Oliver, whose intrusive impulses lead him to do other reckless things during his summer stay at Saltburn, such as eating out Felix’s sister, Venetia.
His obsession also causes him to act out defensively, like when he tries to exert dominance over Farleigh. Oliver would go as far as to frame him in order to get Farleigh banished from the Saltburn estate, all to get rid of any threats to his relationship with Felix.
Some of the biggest gross-out moments, such as Oliver’s bathtub snack and his vampiric tendencies, are products of intense desire and obsession. The desire becomes difficult to control—the want is just so strong that it becomes the sole focus at any given moment.
Everyone has versions of these thoughts, those things that people wouldn't ever want anyone to see, whether they exist outside of one’s imagination or not. These are embodied by Oliver’s twisted and depraved actions throughout the story.
But the moment Oliver was fully denied by his obsession, Felix, following the unraveling of all his lies and falsehoods, he soured. If he couldn't have Felix, no one could—he’d simply become that person.
This is what led to him lashing out at the rest of the Catton family and basically becoming, or devouring, what Felix was by killing them all. This came at the cost of Felix, Venetia, Sir James, and Elspeth’s lives—and ended with Oliver being the sole owner of the Saltburn Estate and its wealth.
He devoured the entire Catton family name, just as Venetia warned.
Saltburn's Messy Twist
Now, things get a little messy when the film’s later twist becomes unraveled.
Oliver Quick admits to Elspeth on her deathbed that he was the person responsible for all the tragic incidents that occurred to the members of the Catton family. What’s more, is how he planned his closeness to Felix and introduction to the Saltburn Estate from the very start.
This makes it seem like he was after wealth the whole time—which doesn't line up with how the character has acted up to this point, as explained in detail above.
This makes everything fairly messy—and is the key point of contention among many who have seen the film.
Now, obviously, obsession and desire aren't the only key focuses of Saltburn’s story.
For example, there is plenty of commentary on social class standings and those of wealthier standings. However, both generally serve more as set dressing for the larger focus on Oliver and his destructive desires and obsession that causes him to rampage through the entire Catton family.
Needless to say, many will walk out of the movie having taken their own interpretation of the story being told. But hopefully, at the very least, the exploration into desire and obsession won’t be lost on most.
Saltburn is now streaming on Prime Video.