Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn, a made-for-Gen Z spin on Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, has polarized audiences. Avid Saltburnistas cheer its debauched, frenetic energy, while detractors blast the thriller for prioritizing shock over psychological depth. But for those of us immersed in political social media, Saltburn offers striking parallels to the unchecked ambition on display in our browsers and smartphones.
The film tells the story of Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), a cunning Oxford scholarship student who socially climbs by befriending campus alpha Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). Their relationship—rooted more in Felix’s pity than genuine affection—serves as Oliver’s gateway into a world of privilege, culminating in his arrival at the lavish Saltburn estate.
It’s within this opulent setting, surrounded by the grandeur of aristocracy and portraits of dead “rellies,” that Oliver’s more sinister ambitions unfold. With a blend of seduction and manipulation, Oliver meticulously exploits the vulnerabilities within Felix’s family to embed himself in the world of British aristocracy.
Inspired by Cruel Intentions (1999), Fennell eschews detailed character analysis in favor of a sensory feast. Oliver is no Norman Bates, nor does Saltburn offer a satisfying “ah-ha” moment. The film leaves Oliver’s mischievous motives largely unexplored. Like Rothko, Fennell invites audiences to project their interpretations onto her work—and for those on X (formerly Twitter), the comparisons with the cadre of social media influencers driving much of online political discourse are hard to overlook.
While social media influencers are a modern phenomenon, using celebrities for votes is a century-old tactic. Warren G. Harding tapped vaudeville and silent film star Lillian Russell to promote his 1920 presidential campaign. Frank Sinatra adapted “High Hopes” for JFK. But the strategy has since evolved from deploying household names as surrogates to mobilizing niche, and often shadowy, online personalities to peddle policy agendas, shape media narratives, and smear rivals with varying degrees of success. Intricate financial and social incentives, heightened by the growing stakes of electoral results, have spawned a Grifter Industrial Complex akin to a horde of Oliver Quicks.
Though we may be tempted to “both sides” this issue, the problem manifests itself quite differently across the political spectrum. One key variance is that left-wing influencers lie about Republicans to help Democrats win elections, and by doing so, show at least some institutional deference. Conversely, certain right-wing influencers lie about Republicans precisely to erode trust in institutions. For them, losing is lucrative, as their influence intensifies in direct proportion to their followers’ sense of victimhood, perpetuating a cycle of grievance they can subsequently exploit. Similar to Oliver’s pursuit of the Saltburn estate, these influencers chase stardom without a raison d’être or a vision for improving people’s lives.
Emblematic of the rot at the nexus of celebrity and politics, consider influencer-turned-presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy.
Like Oliver, Ramaswamy comes from a good family and attended one of our nation’s most prestigious universities. However, rather than harnessing his blessings for the greater good, Ramaswamy uses his privileged perch to deceive—from dabbling in 9/11 trutherism to playing footsie with antisemites—under the guise of bare-knuckle truth-telling, seemingly devoid of any of the Lux or Veritas one would expect from his pedigree. Reminiscent of the shrewd Saltburn protagonist, the talented Mr. Ramaswamy skillfully obscures his past—even by paying an editor to stealthily scrub key elements of his biography from his Wikipedia page.
Ramaswamy’s candidacy, like Saltburn, also reminds us of the dangers of failed institutions. Much like Oliver’s machinations were facilitated by the dysfunctional Catton family (portrayed brilliantly by Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, and Alison Oliver), Ramaswamy thrives on the decadence of political and media elites. His candidacy is bolstered by a network of media companies and fellow influencers who pass off his platitudes as wisdom.
In fairness, Ramaswamy raises important points about America’s drift away from excellence. Naturally, he blames woke academic and corporate entities for the deviation. It’s a valid diagnosis, but it’s also disingenuous coming from someone who is both a product and a beneficiary of a political milieu where showmanship trumps virtue. A culture that truly cherishes excellence would immediately recognize—and dismiss—his fraudulent campaign, ironically emblazoned with the slogan of “TRUTH,” as a farcical charade. Moreover, a political movement genuinely committed to truth would recognize the hollow bravery of mocking overly sensitive 19-year-olds while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge basic facts like election results to shield adults from discomfort. College kids can blame their follies on youth. What’s Ramaswamy’s and his fellow influencers’ excuse?
Of course, there are limits to cinematic parallels. Likening Oliver to certain right-wing influencers may inadvertently flatter the latter. It’s difficult to imagine Oliver, who read all 50 books on his summer reading list to his academic adviser’s astonishment, ever comparing Jerusalem’s “Muslim Quarter” to the Jim Crow South in a botched diatribe on Israel. This dubious distinction belongs to an online personality who, in a revealing sign of the times, faced no apparent repercussions for her embarrassing blunder.
Oliver is also keenly aware of his social status, unlike another right-wing influencer who recently described himself and his peers as those who “truly drive culture” destined to shape future party nominations. After my initial scoffing—“Who the hell does this guy think he is? Anna Wintour?”—I realized there was a kernel of truth in his delusions of grandeur. A “Murder on the Dance Floor” denouement may already be here.
It’s understandable why film critics, perhaps not deeply versed in the complexities of contemporary politics, might feel dissatisfied with the film’s psychological simplicity. “There is no ‘there,’” argued the New York Times’ Wesley Morris. Echoing this frustration, Amanda Dobbins and Sean Fennessey recently posed a rhetorical question to listeners of their binge-worthy Big Picture podcast: “Maybe he’s just a sociopath?” Yes. Precisely.
There is no “there” with Oliver, just like there is no “there” with Ramaswamy and the pocket of social media influencers willing to say anything provided it is buttressed by the right rhetorical scaffolding and, most importantly, tickles their vanity. To paraphrase Venetia Catton’s assessment of Oliver, certain social media influencers are, akin to moths, “drawn to shiny things, banging up against a window, begging to get in.”
Fennell’s Saltburn invites us to face a disturbing reality: Some individuals are so obsessed with clout, so indifferent to the harm they cause, that they will stoop to slurping bathtub remnants. At least Oliver’s sociopathy aims for a considerable fortune; our self-proclaimed digital arbiters of culture settle for “likes” and selfies in Palm Beach.