Oliver In ‘Saltburn,’ Explained: Is This A Case Of Romanticizing The Anti-Villain?

Saltburn has left me wondering if I liked the movie or not. There’s so much about it that is quite enjoyable, like the sets, the colors, and the aesthetic, yet, despite the long run time, the end feels rushed and a little bit overdone. It’s the second act of the film that really stands out as the best part—the time that protagonist Oliver spends at the titular estate. There’s a lot about this movie that doesn’t quite work for me, yet I’m left thinking I did quite enjoy some of it. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s trying so hard to be everything at once that it loses its essence. I did quite enjoy Fennell’s directorial debut, Promising Young Woman, maybe a little more than Saltburn, even though it’s objectively not as “promising.” I suppose the fact that Fennell comes from money proves why she’s better at the vanity aspects of this film in comparison to fleshing out Oliver’s motivations.

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Oliver is essentially Mr. Ripley (Matt Damon from the ‘99 film The Talented Mr. Ripley), but for Gen Z. I suppose there’s a lot of inconsistency in this character because, just as the film is trying so hard to be gutsy, a lot of what the character does simply comes off as something that is meant to evoke a sense of shock in us. Before I jump into the flawed nature of the character itself, I need to pour out my respect for Barry Keoghan in this role. The juxtaposition of his kind eyes and his cunning demeanor is an absolute banger of a combination for this role of the anti-villain that is Oliver. Barry’s blue eyes are so trustworthy; a good example of this in the film is when he’s casually asking Farleigh (his mortal enemy) to sleep with him. The shot is almost claustrophobic because it’s shot so tight, and their faces are so close together while an entire party of people are around them. The same setting with different intentions would’ve made this scene rather romantic, especially because of the way Barry uses his eyes to draw Farleigh in and, in the process, us too.

Oliver is undesirable; he comes across as an incel who’s waiting to become a deranged killer. This is possibly why he’s such a sexually driven character. Still, I’m quite unclear about the “why” here. Mostly, I’m annoyed because this movie can be considered one of the most detailed ones of the year, yet I don’t quite understand the need for these details. Like, why is it shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio? No, it is still a stunning movie to watch, and maybe it adds to the effect that Oliver is so tiny in comparison to the people he wants to outplay. Don’t get me wrong, I love a chaotic film with too much happening and an almost anxious feeling all around it, but with this one, it just doesn’t quite add up, especially with that flat ending. I suppose you could simply say that this is a film about a certain character that goes off the rails (similar to the film itself) and then just becomes “Superbad” (yeah, I had to).

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I think the real problem here is that Oliver is anything the viewer wants him to be. Now, this means there will be a lot of discourse around his character, his actions, and Saltburn as a whole, but I think it’s detrimental to the actual character. For one, there’s nothing ambiguous about him; he’s like a walking billboard, especially towards the end. He’s manipulative, yet not secretive. I think his voyeuristic desires are the part that kind of push the envelope when it comes to developing his character, yet there’s something that makes it feel incomplete or like there’s no real commitment here. There have been 100s of movies like this back in the 2000s; this is the peak late 90s and early 2000s psychosexual filmography, and maybe as someone who has seen a lot of that, I feel in a way cheated? Only because it makes the film quite predictable after a certain point, and Oliver becomes kind of boring. No, I’m not saying the film as a whole is boring; it’s just a character flaw, I suppose.

I suppose we can say Oliver is simply a psychopath, and he’ll do anything to achieve his goal of attaining unimaginable wealth—the Saltburn estate—all for himself, and on the way he’s going to have a blast. Because Oliver didn’t grow up in a terrible household, we learn somewhere in the second act of the film that he’s in fact from a wonderful household. We’re made to think that he might be homosexual, given his desire for Felix, but this might well be a way for him to become Felix and take over his lifestyle. We see him with both women and men, but I suppose it feels almost wrong to consider him a queer character because of how much we’ve seen Hollywood play the “gay and evil” card.

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Now that I think about it, calling Oliver undesirable feels quite daft, considering all the stunning people he ends up having sexual relations with throughout the film. He makes it seem as if he’s the most desired, yet, of course, the one person he wants doesn’t even care. I think Felix is also unaware of how much Oliver actually likes him, even though he makes it quite obvious. Felix is obviously a victim in this film, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about that considering the “eat the rich” attitude of the whole thing. This is where it really gets confusing. Oliver chooses to do these things because of how removed the Cattons are from the world and how they really don’t care about anything in the world. Their bubble is massive and all shades of pink; we get how absolutely indifferent they are, yet is it enough to justify killing them and taking over their estate? I’m not quite sure.

I guess the reason I’m calling Oliver an anti-villain is because we’re meant to empathize with his feelings seeing how “terrible” the Cattons are, but the more we watch them, the more they seem likeable, just simply stupid. So, is he simply a villain that we’re meant to root for? Oh, look, he got the big house and his deepest, darkest desire. Hurrah! Now let’s watch him dance naked around a grand castle as he delights in his achievements. Yet again, I’m conflicted as to how I feel about Oliver. It’s the futile nature of it all that’s gotten me so irked. Near the end of Saltburn, when Oliver is waiting for Elsbeth to just show up for a coffee because he’s obviously stalked her and knows her spot, we see him typing gibberish onto his laptop. Is this supposed to be funny? Or, like, simply showing us the “work” he’s putting into the whole thing. Maybe this is what we’re meant to take away from the film: Oliver is not cool for what he’s done… I rest my case.

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In conclusion, I found the character arc to be a bit lackluster, but the portrayal was fantastic. Oliver is a character that’s memorable only because of Barry Keoghan. I mentioned how Elsbeth was the most vapid character in this film, but at the end of the film, I think it’s an apt word to describe Oliver too. Specifically, because of everything he’s done and how he dances about it in the end. No, I don’t mean the dancing isn’t “exciting,” but it’s just a tacked-on conclusion like most of his decisions seem throughout the film. This isn’t a very decisive character study; it’s not even definitive, but it’s something to have you think about where we’re going with “adult thrillers” right now.


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Ruchika Bhat
Ruchika Bhat
Ruchika, or "Ru," is a fashion designer and stylist by day and a serial binge-watcher by night. She dabbles in writing when she has the chance and loves to entertain herself with reading, K-pop dancing, and the occasional hangout with friends.

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