The bathwater had what in it? And he did what to the bathwater? His hands had what on them when he licked them? He showed his what during that dance scene? Most pressing of all, he did what to the boy’s gravesite?
Writer-director Emerald Fennell’s new film Saltburn has been on the fall film festival circuit for the last few months, ahead of its theatrical debut in limited release last weekend. (It opens wide Nov. 22.) That means audiences have been discovering what happens in the film, a psychosexual thriller that borrows from The Talented Mr. Ripley and Brideshead Revisited, at first slowly and then, now that audiences are starting to see it, very quickly.
It’s been a snowball of buzz that’s grown from a whisper to a din. Some theatergoers have been shocked. Some have been titillated and aroused. Others have been disgusted. Then there are those who don’t understand what all the fuss is about. While it may have been hard to dodge spoilers about all of the provocative twists and turns, now, at least, we feel like those plot points are safe to talk about.
Finally, let’s get into that whole “Barry Keoghan fucks Jacob Elordi’s grave” thing. (Oh yeah, warning: Spoilers ahead!)
We sat down with Fennell last month at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, where she happily talked through all the big reveals—although, in her mind, there was only one plot point she really wanted kept secret until the film came out.
So let’s get into it.
The Biggest Spoiler of Them All
Saltburn begins with Barry Keoghan’s Oliver Quick arriving at Oxford, where he is instantly flagged as an outcast among the posh, privileged, preposterously handsome students who control the university’s social scene. He becomes infatuated with Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), ingratiating himself to the walking Adonis until Felix takes him under his wing.
Just when it seems like Felix is growing tired of Oliver, Oliver tells him that his parents are addicts and his father just died of an overdose. That reignites Felix’s protective instincts; eventually, he invites Oliver to spend the summer with his aristocratic, quirky family at their palatial country estate, Saltburn.
The Catton family, and especially Felix’s mother (Rosamund Pike’s Elsbeth), fetishizes entertaining poor, tragic Oliver as a summer project. A huge birthday blowout is planned for Oliver, but as a surprise beforehand, Felix takes Oliver to visit his mother. This is where the film turns on its head: Felix discovers that Oliver’s parents are a kind and loving middle-class couple who adore their son—yes, and his father is still alive. Oliver had made up his entire tortured backstory for attention.
This is the twist that Fennell wanted to keep a secret. “The horror!” she says. “The horror of being found out.” It’s not just our horror on Oliver’s behalf, but also that of dredged-up feelings we might have about our own secrets. “It’s all those grubby little lies we tell to make ourselves more attractive-feeling, or all the ones we don’t even know we’re telling until somebody pulls us up on them. That was the thing I wanted to preserve. For me, it was about getting people’s blood up.”
The time between Felix’s—and the audience’s—first inkling that Oliver is lying to the moment when it is made painfully clear when the parents are introduced seems excruciatingly long. The more time it takes for the reveal to happen, the more uncomfortable the viewing experience becomes.
“I think there’s the argument of, ‘Oh, will you just cut away [from the scene], because everyone knows what’s going to happen?’ But what if you don’t?” Fennell says. “The only reason you’re cutting away is to make it easier on the audience. But I don’t know that any of us necessarily want an easy ride. It is a film about sadomasochism up to a point, and part of that is the relationship that we all have together [as an audience] too, right?”
The Grave Scene
The conversation about Fennell’s decision not to cut away from difficult moments extends to several scenes in the film. There’s the revelation of Oliver’s true identity. But there’s also the moments earlier in the film where Oliver’s perversions come to light: when he spies on Felix masturbating in the bathtub. After Felix starts draining the tub and leaves the bathroom, Oliver sneaks in and drinks the cum-filled water, licking it from the drain. Then there’s the scene where he hooks up with Felix’s sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver). She warns him that she’s on her period, but he fingers and goes down on her anyway, lapping up the blood and sticking his bloody fingers in her mouth.
But then there’s the grave scene. Felix dies of an overdose at Oliver’s birthday party, likely because of something Oliver did. (We later find out that he drugged Felix, bitter over his rejection after learning of Oliver’s lies.) Oliver attends the funeral with Felix’s family and stays behind at the gravesite. As it pours rain, turning the dirt into mud, Oliver lies on top of the plot, strips naked, sticks his penis into the ground, and begins fucking the grave while crying. You keep waiting for the scene to cut away; it never does.
“The thing that is important is Oliver goes through all the stages [of grief], and then at the end, he realizes how futile and pathetic and awful it is,” Fennell says. “If you cut any sooner, you just assume what? He comes? That’s not what happened. It’s actually just an awful moment of terrible grief and horror.”
“It’s a film about loving someone who will never love you back,” Fennell explains. “Oliver, like all good liars, is just lying in the moment to get the things he wants. At the beginning, that’s just to be friends with the cool kids, right? And then it’s how do I exploit this person’s very obvious savior complex to make him my friend? And then when he’s pulling away, how do I reel him back in? And then how do I keep the interest of his family so I can stay here?
“Then there are moments in the movie where he sees there’s no other option,” she says. “I never felt like he didn’t love Felix. It was always that he loved him, but there was nothing to be done about it. And so what do you do when there’s nothing to be done about it? Just burn it all down.”
Murder on the Dancefloor
Oliver’s version of burning it all down, it turns out, is to murder the entire Catton family.
After Felix dies, we learn that he had basically been entrapping Felix and his family throughout the whole film. When Oliver’s big lie surfaces and Felix disowns him, he plots to destroy them. First, he drugs and kills Felix. Then, he convinces Felix’s distraught sister to commit suicide. He’s eventually kicked out of the Saltburn estate, but, years later, reconnects with Elsbeth, now a widow and childless. After conning her into leaving Saltburn to him in her will, he kills her, too.
The next we see of Oliver, he is back at Saltburn, where he always felt like he belongs. He strips completely naked, and, bits swinging and all, dances through the house while Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s 2001 track “Murder on the Dancefloor” plays. The film’s final sequence is a tracking shot that follows Keoghan, as he shimmies and shakes throughout the estate’s maze of rooms, uninhibited and unapologetic—and full-frontal.
“It needed to be a post-coital expression of pure joy,” Fennell says of the film’s last moments. “And post-coital delights for us as much as him. If we weren’t on his side before, we’re on his side now.”
However a person might judge what Oliver did up until that point of the movie, here was a protagonist who had accomplished his goal. After all that effort, landing this swanky house as reward for all the nefarious acts, who wouldn’t want to dance around naked while a super-gay pop song plays?
“It’s that pure, honest expression of ownership,” Fennell says. “It’s a sigh of relief, but it’s also kind of like, okay, now what?”