[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Saltburn.]
I have a theory about one of the year’s most divisive movies: You’re probably not a fan of Saltburn if, well before the bodies start lining up, you’re sure that even the bicycle tire was planned.
It’s not that the twist is so obvious (though it admittedly doesn’t come as a shock). It’s that you’re looking for it in the first place. The pitch-black comedy begins with the viewer firmly rooted in the point of view of Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), a seemingly meek and poor college student who gets swept up into the orbit of Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). As the story progresses, and Oliver joins Felix at the titular English countryside estate, said meekness is revealed to be just one of Oliver’s many lies about himself. By the time anyone from Felix’s family can figure that out, though… they’re not really able to do anything about it.
Anyone who’s seen The Talented Mr. Ripley or similar projects may be on the lookout for clues as to the depth of Oliver’s schemes, and writer/director Emerald Fennell doesn’t work too hard to disguise them. Instead, Saltburn maintains its forward momentum thanks to the depth of Oliver’s hunger — hunger for the finer things, hunger for attention, hunger for dominance.
Barry Keoghan’s fiercely committed performance keeps all those things hovering close to the surface, but sets up the family he’s preying on as a representation of other excesses: the lazy, dull-witted rich, prone to excess largely as a way of distracting them from how banal life can be. Even before he’s fully revealed as a wolf, it’s clear that the Catton family are sheep, vulnerable to certain kinds of threats — even though they’re also capable of thoughtless and thoughtful cruelties, thanks to the comfortable power that comes with money and class status.
If, in watching the film, you see the Cattons solely as victims, and Oliver as a predator, then it’s understandable that the movie might fall flat for you. (Consequence’s own Clint Worthington’s review is very wise and well-reasoned.) However, as someone who practically did a little dance of my own as I exited the theater, I’ll say that Saltburn left me basking in how delicious it can feel, to watch someone dastardly get away with it.