Saltburn, Explained: Does The Ending Ruin The Film?

Saltburn, the new film from writer-director Emerald Fennell, was initially hailed as a shocking eat-the-rich psychological thriller, but upon its release, audiences have found that while it’s definitely a fun ride, it ends up lacking much of the promised bite. But does that keep the film from working? Let’s dive into what went right, what went wrong in the end, and unpack what Saltburn really has to say.

Entering Saltburn

Saltburn begins with all of the trappings of a good thriller: a fish out of water in an oppressive, dangerous-feeling new environment meets a villain, a weirdo, and a new idol. Taking us back to the year 2006, we find ourselves following quiet new student Oliver as he begins his first year of school at Oxford University. It’s immediately clear that he’s not from this world– from his awkward rolling suitcase to his nerdy school jacket, he doesn’t quite fit in. The exact opposite of Oliver, Felix not only fits in but is the center of attention; he’s also charming, hot, and extremely rich. After a chance meeting where Oliver helps Felix make it to class on time by loaning him his bicycle, the two become quick friends. While Felix mostly seems to feel bad for Oliver’s misfortunes in life (especially after Oliver shares a few stories about his tumultuous childhood,) Oliver’s interest in Felix is clearly much deeper. At the end of the school year, Felix offers for Oliver to come stay with him for the summer to take his mind off of the recent death of his father. And so we arrive at the titular Saltburn, a sprawling English estate where the rest of the film’s events take place. To anyone who has ever been in an English Literature class or had a Jude Law phase, this setup probably feels quite familiar. And the film is very aware of the stories it borrows from, with Felix even at one point remarking that Evelyn Waugh based one of his characters on a member of his family as Fennel’s way of winking at the film’s own connection to Brideshead Revisited.

Inhabiting Saltburn are Farleigh, Felix’s American cousin who Oliver had some rather unpleasant interactions with back at Oxford, Felix’s parents Lady Elsbeth and Sir James, his sister Venitia, family friend Pamela, and a number of servants. Everyone treats Oliver as a bit of a curiosity, and seem happy to have someone new in their midst to replace wet blanket “Poor Dear” Pamela who has apparently overstayed her welcome. While the class difference between Oliver and the others at Oxford was certainly apparent, here at Saltburn, the divide becomes even more obvious. Oliver shows up too early and takes his own taxi to the estate, upsetting the already stodgy head butler Felix has a dinner tux ready for him because he knew Oliver wouldn’t have one, or even be aware of the fact that he would need to dress in black tie for dinner; even breakfast proves to be a hurdle. But Oliver is ever amiable and willing to learn the ropes and find ways to fit himself into this new environment. As he continues to integrate himself into life at Saltburn, his desire for Felix burns even more intense – at one point he secretly watches Felix masturbate in their shared bathroom and then sneaks in to literally drink his bathwater. And it soon becomes more and more apparent that there’s more to Oliver than meets the eye.

Does it stick the landing?

Oliver isn’t just fitting in, he’s infiltrating this new environment like a virus – we begin to see his chess moves laid out more clearly: playing mind games with Venetia, working his way into Elsbeth’s good graces, convincing Felix that Farleigh is a liar. Things begin to unravel, though, when Felix surprises Oliver with a trip home. It turns out that Olvier’s mother isn’t an addict and his father is very much alive. After realizing that Oliver has lied about everything the entire time they’ve known each other. Felix still invites him back to Saltburn for the birthday party that Elsbeth had already planned.

It’s at this A Midsummer Night’s Dream party that the darkness that’s been looming under the surface of the film finally starts to burst its way out. Oliver confronts Felix in the family’s hedge maze, and Felix rejects Oliver – and is found dead in the maze the next morning. Farleigh, who was already on thin ice due to allegedly trying to sell some of the family’s precious items to Sotheby’s, is forced to leave Saltburn when Oliver implies that it was Farleigh’s bad drugs that killed Felix. Venetia soon realizes Oliver is up to something and is found having apparently killed herself the following morning. The truth about these events is apparently supposed to come as a bit of a surprise given the #TrueStoryRevealed monologue and montage we’re treated to at the end of the film, but won’t be to anyone who has ever read a book or watched a film before. Sir James finally pays Oliver to leave Saltburn, fearing he’s growing too close to Elsbeth. After a time jump, Oliver learns of Sir James’ death and runs into Elsbeth in a cafe, at which point she invites him back to Saltburn, soon falls ill, and signs over the entire estate to him. We are then treated to a rather on-the-nose monologue in which Oliver reveals that surprise, he had actually orchestrated everything, from his initial meeting with Felix to killing Felix and Venetia to his cafe meeting with Elsbeth herself. Once he’s done recapping the film for us, he kills Elsbeth as well. The film concludes with Oliver completely nude, dancing through Saltburn to 2002 hit “Murder on the Dancefloor,” no longer restricted by their elite rules and totally in control.

After nearly two hours of anticipating a thrilling conclusion, what we were met with fell quite flat. And that all of the class critique in the film ends up feeling so superficial (which we’ll get into in a moment) doesn’t help. But also, a lot of the ending just doesn’t really make sense. That everyone in the family so easily falls for Olvier’s tricks would require them to be naive and guileless to a wild degree – Wealth hoarders, especially old money ones like these, are notoriously protective of their assets and incredibly suspicious of anyone that seems to be trying to gain access to them. One answer to this, of course, is that it’s a satire, so that they’re so clueless is part of the point, but the film never really fully connects the dots on this idea, so it rings hollow. And then there’s the MacGuffin of supposed super-planner psychopath Oliver leaving his phone out, unattended for long enough for Felix to have an entire chat with his mom. If the ending had been more fulfilling, plot contrivances like these would of course be easier to overlook. But because the ending is so empty, it causes you to look back at the entire film in a different light. So let’s take a look at which parts of Saltburn’s class critique works, and which parts are left feeling a bit shallow.

Eat The Rich or Be The Rich

Saltburn does provide some pretty hilarious satire of the ultra-wealthy, particularly through matriarch Elsbeth and “Poor Dear” Pamela. Pamela, having overstayed her welcome at Saltburn with apparently nowhere else to go, clings to the edges of the family as they try to, ever so politely, shake her off. While her flighty, self-destructive ways might have been seen as rebellious and fun in her younger years, now that she’s well into adulthood it makes her more of a burden on those around her. This has apparently gotten her into some bad situations, as she shares a story about the dangerous-sounding boyfriend she met at rehab who sounds like he might be a part of the Russian mob. When Pamela turns up dead in an apparent suicide, not only does no one question it (setting up their response to Venitia’s fate later), they just blithely share it as passing gossip – with Elbseth even mocking her for always “seeking attention.” This kind of detachment from the darker sides of life and ability to ignore just about anything for the sake of keeping up appearances ratchets up over the course of the film. When her own son is found dead, Elsbeth grieves for a moment before declaring that “lunch is almost ready” and trodding back towards the house in search of “normalcy.” We’ve also seen dramatizations of the British elite’s desire for normal above all else in things like The Crown, but here Fennel pushes things into the absurd to expose just how wild their need to turn a blind eye to the problems in their lives really is. While Venitia and Farleigh silently break down, unable to even pretend to eat the lunch before them, Sir James and Elsbeth attempt to carry on conversation as normal even as their own restrained facades threaten to crack. Oliver is the calmest head in the room – and he continues on with what he’s realized is the most important part to his “fitting in”: giving the wealthy what they want. He goes along with Elsbeth’s conversation about dry cake and cold hands, pulling her out of her flooding grief and closer to him. Oliver, when confronted by Felix about his lies, had even been open about the fact that he made up the stories because he knew it was the kind of thing Felix would want to hear. Oliver’s stories kept the balance of the status quo in a way he knew the wealthy would accept without question. And this deep need to keep things business as usual is even made physically manifest when Oliver breaks a mirror one evening only to wake up and find that it has been quietly replaced overnight without mention. Elsbeth’s death is also the one we explicitly see on screen – she was the most willing to overlook every obvious issue and push aside every encroaching danger in her steadfast desire to keep things normal, and so in the end is punished the most.

Oliver Quick’s name, of course, brings to mind Dickens’ Oliver Twist, a poor orphan trapped in a life of poverty and misfortune. One thing that is interesting about Saltburn is our finding out that Oliver isn’t actually poor at all – he’s had a perfectly comfortable middle-class life. His desire for more doesn’t come from being a have-not, he just thinks he should have everything. So less than a representation of a downtrodden member of the underclass taking revenge on those who hoard the world’s resources, Oliver’s rage is really about his middle-class shame. This could have been interesting to explore – what drives someone who does have everything one would need: kind parents, good schooling, a nice home, to do the unthinkable in a quest for immense wealth. But this reveal only exists to let us know – in case the creeping around and making thinly veiled threats and literally referring to himself as a vampire didn’t clue us in – that he’s not to be trusted.

While the film does explore these facets of the dark underbelly of the upper class to some degree, it does generally seem uninterested in actually interrogating many of the themes it gestures at. Initially hailed as an ‘eat-the-rich’ film, it doesn’t actually seem that keen to examine wealth disparity or clashes between classes – the causes, the outcomes, the larger societal ramifications. The film feels like all of these threads are leading towards some final grand conclusion, where it will really have something to say about the things it’s been touching on. When Elsbeth runs into Oliver at the coffee shop and brings him back into her life, we might expect a final showdown where Barry reveals his true nature to her and we see her have to directly contend with the consequences of her aloofness and detachment from reality, possibly for the first time in her life. But then it just ends, leaving us wondering what the point really was. And, given how on the nose it is about everything else, it does start to feel like the film’s avoidance of the deep end is deliberate. There’s also the matter of race, with the only character of color with lines also being framed as the villain for a good chunk of the film. Farleigh – who is biracial – even brings up the reality that he’s treated differently by the family because of his race, to which Felix shoots him down for “playing the race card” – a reaction that certainly fits for Felix’s character, but the fact that the film itself also drops the thread after this moment feels odd.

But, apparently, Fennel never intended for the film to be an exploration of any of these themes, they were just meant to serve as set dressing for a story about love. According to Vogue, “Fennell won’t be drawn on questions relating to the nuances of racism, sexism, and classism in the film. To her mind, any political critique encoded within the film is ultimately secondary to its central preoccupation.” She told the magazine, “Really, it’s a film about first love… I’m utterly obsessed with how we relate to things that we want and desire and also kind of hate and know are unattainable—things that we know will never love us back, whether that’s a person or a house or a culture.” Through this light, things start to make a lot more sense. The cultural and political themes within the film aren’t brought up because of any interest in them, but just to head off any criticisms that the film ignored them completely. That Fennel has this rather detached view of wealth disparity isn’t really a surprise given that her life experience is much closer to that of Felix than Oliver. Fennel grew up wealthy, the daughter of a celebrity jewelry designer hailed as the “king of bling”. Her 18th birthday party was featured in Tatler, the magazine of British high society, and she, too, attended Oxford. That she is part of this world helped to make Saltburn and the Catton family feel more lived in and true to life, but it also is likely why she’s never really willing to twist the knife to any meaningful degree with the film’s satire and critiques. Instead, we’re left with an ending that doesn’t really feel meaningful or complex at all. But the ending being a letdown doesn’t totally negate the things that did work well about the film.

Expertly Pulling Us In

Even if the ending is a disappointment, the ride getting there is lots of fun. The cinematography is lush and artful. Fennell and cinematographer Linus Sandgren give us some moments that feel as light as dreams, almost allowing us to float away before we’re snapped back to cold reality. Every frame is filled with visual splendor, tempting you to become sucked in by the beauty, wealth, and artifice in the same way that Oliver does. While the stately halls of Oxford and antique elegance of Saltburn feel almost timeless, the film’s great music, featuring 2000s icons like MGMT and Bloc Party, ties it to its very specific point in time.

The all-around great acting performances also elevate the film – from the stars to minor players, everyone really hits it out of the park. Jacob Elordi gets to show a much softer side than we’ve gotten to see previously with his turn as Nate Jacobs on Euphoria, and he manages to make Felix’s naivete feel honest and driven by his search for connection. Though the film itself is unfortunately rather incurious about what it is that really drives Oliver, Barry Keoghan still manages to give layers to his character that draw us in. Rosamund Pike’s Elsbeth steals every scene she’s in (especially because she gets all of the film’s best lines,) and even with what little she was given Rosamond carved out an at once hilarious and disturbing portrait of endless wealth and detachment wrapped up in a beautiful, if very precarious, facade of calm.

So with all that the film does well, is its paint-by-numbers ending and general disinterest in its own themes enough to ruin the movie? That really depends on what you’re looking to get out of it. If you’re looking for an inspired satire dismantling the pretenses of the elite and interrogating a society that allows such great gulfs between classes to exist, you’re probably going to leave disappointed. But if you’re just looking for a fun two hours of beauty, fun quips, and a little bit of weirdness, you’ll likely have a good time. The film does, in the end, leave a lot to be desired, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun floating in the shallow end.


Bystander. “As Emerald Fennell Wins a Gong at the Oscars, Tatler Looks Back at Her 18th Birthday Party.” Tatler, Tatler, 26 Apr. 2021,

Hogan, Michael. “Jeweller Theo Fennell: ‘Being Called the King of Bling Is Better than the Prince of Darkness.’” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 10 Apr. 2022,

Maitland, Hayley. “Emerald Fennell’s ‘Saltburn’ Uncovers the Dark Side of the British Upper Class.” Vogue, 27 Sept. 2023,