When Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) arrives at university, he doesn’t have an easy time fitting in. He’s owlish and shy, unable to break into the cliques that have already been established years earlier at Eton or Harrow. So when he finds an in with the popular, gregarious, disgustingly rich Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), he grabs onto it with both hands and hangs on for dear life. Being part of Felix’s inner circle offers social opportunities that the working-class Oliver never could have imagined, and he’s not willing to let them go. When Felix invites him to spend part of the summer at his family’s palatial manor, he happily accepts, even though it’s clear from his first moments at Saltburn that he’s out of his depth. But as he ingratiates himself to the Catton family, his desperate need to win them over and become part of their world might hide other, more complicated intentions.
The depiction of class in “Saltburn” is on-the-nose, but still intriguing. To the Catton family, someone like Oliver is a curiosity — there’s nothing they can’t afford to buy, so they instead become collectors of anecdotes and peculiar acquaintances. Oliver, with his story of rising from drug-addicted parents to study at Oxford, has a novelty factor that holds their interest, at least for a while. Oliver understands this, and he carefully molds himself into what each member of the family needs him to be, a chameleon built to win over the upper crust. As titled, impossibly wealthy members of the nobility, the Cattons — and by extension the whole of upper-class Britain — hold all the cards over people like Oliver. But their position at the top of the social food chain also makes them weak, and all too easy to manipulate.