In this dark, twisted, and sometimes hilarious psychological thriller you will find no shortage of satire aimed at the lives of the British elite.
The protagonist is Oliver Quick, played excellently by Barry Keoghan: a young man from Prescot, Merseyside, who has won a place at Oxford University.
Oliver finds himself left out and isolated from the rest of his peers, however, primarily because of his social background. (Incidentally, the film is set in 2006, the year tuition fees of £3,000 were introduced.)
We see, for example, that Oliver is the consummate student, always preparing to the Nth degree. His tutorial partner, Farleigh, by contrast, is late and unprepared. Regardless, his tutor takes an immediate liking to Farleigh, simply because his mother is a famous alumna of Oxford.
WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!
Degenerate ruling class
By chance, or so it seems, Oliver meets Felix Catton, the eccentric son of an aristocrat. The two quickly strike up a strong bond. This is not without friction, however; not least because Felix’s friends consider Oliver to be “a scholarship boy who buys his clothes at Oxfam”.
Oliver confides in Felix that both of his parents were substance users; that his Dad has recently died in a drunken accident; and that he does not want to go home for the vacation. Consequently, Felix offers Oliver the chance to spend the summer on his family’s estate, called Saltburn.
The estate is vast, steeped in luxury and splendour. The home, meanwhile, is decorated in fine art, suits of armour, and rare antique plates, with a full team of staff tending to the family’s every need.
Before Oliver first meets the Cattons, he overhears them gossiping about his tragic, disadvantaged background. None of them can guess exactly where Liverpool is, let alone Prescot. They surmise that it is unlikely Liverpool has rehab facilities. (This isn’t too far from the truth. Funding for rehab has halved in the last decade, while drug-related deaths have doubled.)
The satirical side to the film shines through by exposing the buffoonery, shallowness, debauchery, and indulgence of the Catton family, often in hilarious fashion.
For Oliver’s birthday, Felix surprises him by taking him to his home, where he is shocked to find that his friend has lied about his destitute background. In fact, he is from a middle-class family with two living parents.
It turns out Oliver had lied so that he could be more appealing to Felix and his elite peers, who he correctly predicted would romanticise his tragic backstory and bring him into their inner circle.
Suspiciously, shortly after this revelation, the family at Saltburn, including Felix, begin to die off one by one. Soon, Lady Elsbeth, Felix’s mother, is the only one left – and Oliver has grown particularly close with her. Consequently, he has had Saltburn and the family fortune signed over to his name.
After a series of ‘accidents’ Lady Elsbeth is in a coma and on life support. Oliver explains to her that he orchestrated both meeting Felix and the recent spate of deaths.
He explains that he had hated the family since the very beginning, and revels in how easy it had been to inmesh himself in their household. As he removes Elsbeth’s life support, Oliver describes the debaucherous Cattons as “spoilt dogs, lying belly up”, their property ripe for the taking.
As Oliver parades around Saltburn to the tune of Sophie Ellis Bextor’s Murder on the Dancefloor, celebrating his victory and social ascension, you cannot help but think that Oliver is somewhat right.
The property of the degenerate “spoilt dogs” of the ruling class is ripe for the taking – but not by some sociopathic petty-bourgeois, who thinks that he is better placed than the current elites to carry their wealth.
It is for the organised working class to seize this property, and to do away with all bourgeois privilege and indulgence.