‘Saltburn’ Ending Explained & Film Summary: Was Oliver Involved In The Cattons’ Deaths?


Saltburn is an intriguing new psychological thriller drama film by British actress and director Emerald Fennell that tells a not-so-unique story in a satisfying new wrap. The plot follows a young Oxford student, Oliver Quick, who becomes friends with Felix Catton, who comes from an aristocratic high-society family. As their friendship grows stronger, Oliver gets himself invited to the Cattons’ sprawling countryside mansion, Saltburn, where a series of events turn his life around. Saltburn is a uniquely enjoyable film, more so for its visuals and performances, and can surely be recommended for casual and serious viewers alike.

Spoiler Alert

How does Oliver get invited to Saltburn?

To think of Saltburn after one is done watching it, the film appears to be a character study of the protagonist, Oliver Quick, at every stage, even when the premise of the plot is being established. Oliver is a young student who arrives at Oxford for higher education after having received a scholarship for his previous academic performance. The young adult boy is an immediate misfit at the place, both for his studious and uptight appearance and clothing, and also because he is not too familiar with high-society etiquette. The fact that he is on a scholarship and, therefore more studious than the average student around is also a reason that Oliver has to spend most of his time alone.

During the first dinner ceremony, he does become friends with a boy named Michael Gavey, but Oliver is not very proud of this friendship. Michael is an even more studious mathematics student who does not even want to mingle with the average kids around, whom he considers to be below his IQ stature. Oliver goes around with Michael during his free time for a few days, but another student has already caught his attention by this time. Felix Catton is not just physically attractive, with a charming personality; he is also a very popular boy, always surrounded by other students. Class hours are not interesting for Oliver either, as he is paired with another student named Farleigh Start, who also hails from a high-class family, and the professor is visibly more biased towards him. 

Oliver finally gets a chance to make his life at Oxford interesting when he sees Felix struggling with a puncture in his bicycle tire, and the boy offers his own ride to his collegemate, seeing that Felix is in a hurry. Later that evening, Oliver visits a pub with Michael to see Felix and his group of friends, and as soon as Felix spots him, he gets invited to sit with them. The two boys meet a number of times over the next few days, and Oliver seems to have a strong interest in his new friend. In fact, the protagonist is seen prying on Felix as he gets intimate with his female friends, and there is clearly a tinge of jealousy in his eyes. But Oliver oversteps his boundaries when he tries to exert some overly friendly control over Felix’s life by repeatedly asking him to clean his room and be tidier.

Felix stops meeting Oliver after this incident, and the latter clearly misses his company. When Michael comes across Oliver and tells him how he has changed even his clothing style, the protagonist does not care and keeps focusing on Felix’s attention. However, tragedy strikes when Oliver suddenly gets shocking news from home. He had earlier revealed to Felix how he was not close with his parents, who had various troubles with drugs and mental health. Oliver now receives a call from his mother, informing him that his father has just passed away after falling on the road in a drugged state. The boy tearfully goes to Felix’s room and shares this news with him, and the latter, too, supports his friend at such a woeful time. Soon, the academic year ends after examinations, and Oliver is in a fix about where to spend the summer. His mother still regularly takes drugs, making his home a terribly bad environment to be in, and there is really nowhere else for him to go. Hearing of all this, the good-hearted Felix invites his dear friend to his family home, the sprawling Saltburn Manor.

What leads to Farleigh’s expulsion from Saltburn Manor?

After arriving at the Saltburn estate house, Oliver still feels out of place, perhaps even more so than before, for the Catton family lives in utter luxury with almost royal practices. The house once used to be the abode of Henry VIII, and so every nook and cranny is filled with reminders of British royalty. Felix’s parents, Sir James and Lady Elspeth, are mostly carefree individuals, with no thought of money or expenditure, as the man is a professional art collector, while his wife is an ex-model. For someone like Oliver, who comes from a much more modest background, having a butler tend to his every need or maids unpack his suitcases and wake him up every morning is very strange, in the modern times of 2006, when the film takes place. He also makes acquaintance with Felix’s sister, Venetia, and learns that Farleigh is Felix’s cousin. Farleigh’s mother was the sister of Sir James, and during her younger days, certain actions of hers led to the man cutting her off the family property. But he also became guilty of this decision over time, and at present, it is Sir James who pays for Farleigh’s education.

As Oliver spends days at the house, he eventually starts to fit in until there is almost a strange change in his personality. The once shy and introverted boy gains a certain boost of confidence, almost as if he finds his place in such a high-society lifestyle. Saltburn presents this increase in confidence through sexual explorations by the protagonist, as he spies on Felix pleasuring himself one night and is extremely aroused by the experience. On the other side, Venetia also throws her charms around Oliver, making it quite obvious that she is interested in the new boy at her house. Although there are suggestions, particularly by Farleigh, that both Felix and Venetia have a habit of making friends and turning them into lovers before some trouble naturally cropped up, Oliver is not deterred by any of this. While he cannot make any romantic attempts on Felix, the boy gets intimate with Venetia, also trying to bring her under the control of his words. This works, too, as Venetia is seen to develop a sudden and unlikely interest in eating, only because Oliver had told her to do so the previous night. 

A problem arises when Farleigh spots this moment of intimacy between the two and reports about it to Felix. This inadvertently creates a rift between Felix and Oliver, for he does not like his sister stealing away his friends from him, and Oliver now has to work hard again to get back on good terms with his friend. But the protagonist also needs to ensure that Farleigh can create no more trouble against him, and he does so by seducing the boy as well, knowing that Farleigh was homosexual. Thus, within a few days, Oliver’s timid nature suddenly vanishes to make way for a charming and swooning attitude, which he even once tries on Lady Elspeth. Interestingly, Farleigh is expelled from Saltburn Manor the very next morning after Oliver sneaks into his room, and the reason stated is that the boy had apparently stolen some expensive objects from the house. Sir James was already reluctant to support Farleigh any longer, and when the objects were found in his room, he was ousted from the place.

It is very possible that Oliver had intentionally placed the object in Farleigh’s room, for he wanted to remove the boy from Saltburn Manor. It soon becomes clear that the protagonist craved for Felix’s attention, and Farleigh was simply one more competition in his way since the cousin’s education and livelihood were supported by the Catton family. As Oliver’s birthday approaches, Felix receives a call from the boy’s mother and takes him to his address as a surprise visit to his family home. However, when Felix and Oliver reach the house, the latter’s life turns out to be very different from what he had stated to be. Oliver’s parents were not drug addicts or patients of mental illness but were very gentle upper-middle-class people who had raised their son with love and care. It was Oliver who always wanted to be a single child, never mentioning that he had sisters, and the boy had also claimed his alive-and-well father to be dead only to gain Felix’s attention. If the chronology of events is to be recalled, Oliver had come up with this utmost lie when Felix had stopped hanging out with him, as this was his means to get back to being friends with him. As someone reckless enough to lie about his parents, Oliver could have very well gotten Farleigh ousted from Saltburn Manor to become the only individual being financially supported by the Catton family.

How does the Catton family fall apart?

Matters take a significant turn after Oliver’s lies are exposed to Felix, who refuses to let Oliver stay at Saltburn Manor any longer. The protagonist is told to leave the house the next morning, and despite all his attempts to make Felix change his mind, the decision remains final. However, during the evening’s party, held on the occasion of Oliver’s birthday, the boy again approaches Felix to have a word with him, this time inside the garden maze at the estate. Although Felix refuses to believe the boy any longer, cutting all ties of friendship with him too, things take a strange turn when he is found dead the next morning. Felix seems to have either killed himself or died from alcohol poisoning.

As the police arrive and investigate the matter, the Catton parents force a strange attitude of denial, talking nonchalantly about things, and Oliver also joins in. Venetia is the one most shocked and grievous, and she soon puts all the blame for her brother’s death on Oliver. Terming him as the pesky outsider who can never fit into high society, Venetia orders Oliver to leave their house, before she too seemingly kills herself by slitting her wrists inside the bathtub. This series of strange deaths leaves Elspeth to put all her love and attention on Oliver, but Sir James finds this unreasonable and drives Oliver out of the house.

The series of deaths in the Catton family picks up again in 2022, when Sir James passes away from some natural cause. Saltburn also skips forward sixteen years; as an adult, Oliver is seen reading the news. It can be assumed that he had received some money from Sir James when he was driven out of the house, and it was with this wealth that Oliver had supported himself for all these years.

Was Oliver involved in the sudden deaths of the Cattons?

At present, Oliver happens to come across Lady Elspeth at a café, and the woman immediately invites him back to Saltburn Manor. Now that there is nobody to object to his presence, Oliver goes over to the place, and when Lady Elspeth becomes sick soon after, he is the one to look after her. During this time, the man talks to Lady Elspeth, who is too sick to respond or have any conversation, and it is this monologue of Oliver that has been shown at the very beginning of the film. When Saltburn began with Oliver talking about how he was never in love with Felix, it seemed like the film would be about his troubled romance with his collegemate. However, the film turns out to be a completely different tale in these last few minutes, when Oliver is revealed to have been involved in the sudden deaths of the Catton family members.

Oliver Quick had been frustrated by the unjust sympathy and almost showy concern that the upper class showered on individuals like him. This sentiment is perhaps not very uncommon in a country where the aristocratic class still exists and considers itself superior to everyone else. The fact that Oliver was always made to feel like an outsider, that he was being helped out of his misery, and that people did not even care to remember his name during his own birthday party, disgusted the boy. However, what is unusual about our protagonist is that he is also a compulsive liar and an almost psychopathic individual who did not hesitate to act out his desires. The boy is seen lying to his parents about his academic performances, suggesting that he has a habit of regularly making up stories to gain favors.

During his initial days at Oxford, Oliver identified Felix as someone very rich and influential and got close to him by making himself seem more interesting and in need of mental and financial support. In fact, the puncture in Felix’s cycle tire on that fateful day was also Oliver’s doing. Once he managed to get into Saltburn Manor, the boy tried everything to ensure that he would never have to leave, seducing whomever he had to. But when things did not work out, and Felix wanted him to leave, Oliver did not hesitate to kill his friend by poisoning his alcohol, and then also Venetia, by verbally pushing her towards a mental breakdown and leaving a pair of blades by her bathtub. Although his plan halted when Sir James sent him away from the house, it again resumes when the man passes away sixteen years later.

Oliver had kept waiting for this time, and he now finally kills Lady Elspeth, making it look like she has passed away due to her illness. It is extremely possible that this illness of the woman was caused by some plan of Oliver. Thus, the evil and psychopathic protagonist manages to truly make himself part of high society forever, as there is nobody else left to claim Saltburn manor.

During Saltburn‘s ending, a greatly shocking scene takes place where we see Oliver Quick dances naked through the grand estate house, knowing that he is the owner and master of all this property, having successfully completed the plan he had set out to execute sixteen years ago.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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