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Saltburn Movie and Ending Explained

Barry Keoghan and Archie Madekwe stand outside Oxford university in the movie Saltburn, whose ending is explained in this article

Saltburn and its ending have divided viewers, but what does it all really mean? We look at Saltburn and its implications to get the movie and ending explained.

Welp … It finally happened. I’m making my first ever official “Ending Explained” article. I guess this is what it’s like to make the big time. But rest assured, I have plenty of actual merit to say on one of the most divisive films of 2023: Saltburn. Directed by Emerald Fennell, Saltburn stars Barry Keoghan (The Banshees of Inisherin) as Oliver Quick, an Oxford student who is heavily drawn to aristocrat and fellow student Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi, Priscilla). The two become friends, and Felix invites Oliver to his family’s estate, Saltburn, for the summer. But when Oliver arrives, the relationships he forms with Felix’s family slowly spiral to the kinds of dark, weird places that disgust many viewers but delight sick freaks like me.

Outside of films in franchises that aren’t worth getting mad over, I can’t remember the last movie to get reactions as polarized as what Saltburn got. Some love its off-putting turns, twisted characters, and gothic atmosphere, while others find it self-important, shallow, and confused with its messaging. In particular, the film’s ending seems to be ridiculed not only in its execution, but in how it compromises the entire movie. For me, however, the ending elevates the entire movie from enjoyably creepy to sharply clever. To explain why, I obviously need to go into detail with Saltburn’s whole plot. So, I’m warning you now that there will be heavy spoilers going forward, just so you don’t end up salty and burned yourself.


While Oliver is initially presented as simply an awkward, poor kid with a crush, Saltburn doesn’t take too long in revealing a much more disturbing personality lurking underneath. He stalks Felix, sexually assaults his American cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe, Midsommar), slurps up Felix’s bathwater from the drain, and … well, he’s played by Barry Keoghan, whose face I never trusted after Killing of a Sacred Deer. On top of that, Oliver is later revealed to be living a respectable middle-class life with two healthy, loving parents, having lied about his poor social status to gain Felix’s sympathies.

And then we get our big, controversial ending: Oliver orchestrated every step of his entrenchment into Saltburn and the Catton family’s ultimate demise. He staged his initial meetup with Felix, and he would go on to poison Felix, frame and oust Farleigh for dealing him drugs, coerce Felix’s sister (Alison Oliver) to suicide, and even plan to meet with Felix’s mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl) years later once her husband (Richard E. Grant, Logan) dies. Once Elspeth has bequeathed Saltburn and her other assets to him, Oliver kills her, inherits the estate, and does a celebratory naked dance that spawned a Tik Tok trend.

Barry Keoghan looks out of the window in the movie Saltburn, whose ending is explained in this article
Saltburn Movie and Ending Explained – a still from the film (MGM)


The main crux of Saltburn is Oliver’s battle to get and stay attached to Felix and his family. In particular, he clashes with Farleigh, who has also latched onto the family and tries to defend his territory. The dynamic is somewhat similar to the conflict amongst the poor in 2019’s Parasite, where multiple parties are also fighting for dominance underneath an ignorant rich family’s noses. Unlike Parasite, however, our main character is a well-off middle-class person who isn’t struggling in any way. Oliver doesn’t need anything he’s working so hard to get, whether it be Felix himself or a status at Saltburn. He just really, really wants it, to the point where he’ll resort to murder and manipulation … again, despite the fact that his own life is fine.

Once you know his background, Oliver’s dark deeds stop looking like a crazed, desperate scramble from the bottom and more like an act of uncontrollable lust and greed. From the very start of the film, I believe he genuinely feels a deep infatuation for Felix, and that he only kills him once he realizes he has truly lost Felix as a friend. You don’t nakedly hump a person’s grave unless you feel a real attachment to them … okay, most people don’t hump graves, period, but you get the point. But even beyond that, Saltburn’s ending makes it clear that Oliver has a similar lust for everything around Felix: the Saltburn estate, riches, and a higher social standing.

Even after Felix is gone, Oliver still silently plots to weasel his way to the top until he’s the only one left. He claims that he both loved and hated Felix, and that he hated all of the Cattons as “spoiled dogs” … while seductively pressing his face against a dying Elspeth, as if drinking in the last of her glorious scent. That duality between obsessional love and obsessional hatred is Oliver’s defining quality and highlights how he’s motivated by a combination of lust, malice, and in my eyes, jealousy. Especially since he ends the film as the rich head of Saltburn, living in luxury … in other words, he becomes the very thing he claims to have hated.


If I believed that Emerald Fennell was the out-of-touch hack that the internet seems happy to paint her as, I would join them in decrying Saltburn as a misguided story that shoots itself in the foot at the last minute. But this ending recontextualizes the entire film from an already interesting psychological thriller to a searing critique of a group of people that I rarely see targeted in social commentary: the stable middle class. Saltburn certainly mocks the rich, portraying them as vapid, unstable, blind to the world’s problems, and completely unable to cope when tragedy hits them. Their dysfunction is part of how Oliver so easily manages to pick off the Cattons and take over.

Barry Keoghan sits at a table and we see his reflection in the movie Saltburn, whose ending is explained in this article
Saltburn Movie and Ending Explained – a still from the film (MGM)

But Oliver is clearly the villain protagonist with his significantly worse actions and unhinged desire for riches and status … which I believe satirizes the true motivations behind a lot of middle-class hatred towards the rich. So many people yell, “Eat the rich! Eat the rich!” And yes, wealth inequality is a serious problem that needs to be dealt with. But how many of those people are shouting from their comfortable homes, financially stable and not actually suffering from that inequality even if they’re not “rich?” The degree of anger they feel isn’t warranted based on how they live, which leads me to suspect that some of them don’t really want to eat the rich … they want to become the rich. They’re jealous of what the rich have, and their crusades towards “justice” are more selfish than they seem.

Saltburn, through its portrayal of Oliver, asks the middle class to look at themselves and what’s really driving their anti-rich sentiments. It’s not the first film to comment on intraclass warfare, but it puts a spin on the concept by showing how entitled the yearning for wealth can come across from someone whose life is already totally fine. I don’t mean to say all or even most of the middle class is selfishly motivated. But I do think some of them have this sentiment that adds a selfish angle to an otherwise worthwhile fight. The rich are causing immense harm, but we have so many stories calling them out. I love seeing a perspective that doesn’t side with the rich but still shows a different kind of class-based corruption.


Even if you dislike this stance from a political perspective – I’m expecting some blowback just by expressing this viewpoint – Saltburn’s ending still works as the payoff to a pure character study. Oliver is still a fascinating sociopath of a character who lusts for people and materials that he simultaneously loves, hates, doesn’t need, and can’t live without. He cares for Felix, but he’ll still destroy him once he loses him. He resents what the Saltburn family stands for, yet he can’t escape the pull of its allure. He schemes and murders not out of necessity, but out of entitled obsession with what’s been out of reach for him. As Felix’s sister puts it, he’s a moth drawn to a flame, and he’ll chew up anything to get to it.

If Saltburn turned you off for its nasty sequences, slow pace, or overall “pretentious” vibe, I can’t put up any sort of an argument other than … I just like that stuff. But if you believe the film has nothing of narrative substance outside of the literal substance being guzzled from a drain, or if you think its political messaging is compromised by the ending in particular, I’m curious if you ever thought about it from the point of view I just laid out. Maybe it will help you appreciate the film a bit more, or maybe I’ve just made you like it even less … I’d weirdly be impressed with myself if the latter happens. There are a lot of ways to look at Saltburn, whether they were intended or not; this is simply mine.

Get it on Apple TV

Saltburn is now available to watch on digital and on demand. Stream Saltburn!

Saltburn: Film Review – Loud And Clear Reviews
Film Review: With Saltburn, Emerald Fennell tells a tale of privilege, desire, and deception with a magnificent visual style.
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