clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
A still of Barry Keoghan laying shirtless in the grass as he looks at the camera in Saltburn. Image: Prime

Filed under:

Saltburn’s controversial bits were destined to blow up online — and now they have

Every TikTok user gets a moment

Ana Diaz (she/her) is a culture writer at Polygon, covering internet culture, fandom, and video games. Her work has previously appeared at NPR, Wired, and The Verge.

Saltburn, the 2023 movie about a young man who slurps up bathtub cum water, has become a surprise flashpoint for internet fandom. The new movie from writer-director Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman) follows Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), a seemingly docile and underprivileged Oxford University student who spends a summer at the palatial estate of his staggeringly rich, popular classmate Felix (Priscilla star Jacob Elordi). Since its release last November, the movie has become known for its shocking scenes and its twisted central relationship, which has inspired an enormous fan base online.

The “Saltburn” hashtag on TikTok has garnered more than 2.1 billion views as of this writing, with the top videos getting more than 23 million views. One song from the movie’s soundtrack, the mashup “Perfect (Exceeder),” rose to 40 on the Singles U.K. chart more than a decade after its release because of Saltburn fandom.

Saltburn’s internet virality can be a lot, especially if you’ve just found yourself in the full swamp of the TikTok trend. Here’s why it’s found such a virulent online fandom.

[Ed note: This post contains spoilers for a couple of Saltburn’s more controversial and heavily discussed moments.]

An image of Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, and Alison Oliver sitting on a couch in Saltburn Image: Chiabella James/Prime

What happens in the Saltburn bathtub scene?

The first step to understanding why Saltburn has become such fodder for memes, response videos, and analysis is getting an idea of what about it resonated with audiences. The movie follows two young university students as they spend a summer together at a palatial summer mansion. Felix Catton, a carefree rich boy played by a swoony Elordi, invites his classmate Oliver to his mansion for the summer after Oliver tells him his dad died of a drug overdose. Over the course of the movie, Fennell depicts a creepy relationship where Oliver becomes increasingly obsessed with Felix, in ways that feel simultaneously sexual and aspirational — Oliver may want to have sex with Felix, but he also clearly wants to be Felix.

A large part of what has drawn people to it online are two deliberately provocative scenes. In one, Oliver spies on Felix masturbating in a bathtub, then sneaks into the bathroom afterward to lustfully lick up Felix’s bathwater. His unrequited obsession with Felix deepens throughout the movie, and in a later scene, after Felix dies, Oliver weeps over his grave — then pulls down his pants for some good old-fashioned penis-in-earth grief sex. Both these sequences were memorable enough to drum up buzz around the movie.

@eulucasmuller

10/10 would recommend a girls night to watch saltburn and see friends reaction #saltburn #jacobelordi #barrykeoghan #reaction

♬ som original - Lucas Müller

Those scenes have inspired a lot of fan debate over how “shocking” the film actually is. Some viewers have made reaction videos, supposedly recording their faces as they watched the scene for the first time. Similarly, many made videos where they recorded older family members reacting to the scene. This in turn resulted in a sort of counter-response, with a wave of videos critiquing those who found the scenes shocking. Although the responses and analysis have varied, it’s all generated plenty of videos, likes, and views on social media platforms. Which gets into the main set of reasons this movie took off.

Why did Saltburn become so popular with online fans?

Essentially, Fennell’s film has all the fodder that feeds modern fandom: It has rose-tinted scenes showing heartthrobs Jacob Elordi and Barry Keoghan that can be turned into dreamy fan edits. It has homoerotic lust to inspire queer fans. The plot, with Oliver navigating Felix’s family dynamic, has just enough intrigue and mystery that it has inspired copious theory and analysis videos. Also, the cast’s press tour has been filled with surprisingly juicy revelations: Elordi told British Vogue that Timothée Chalamet was almost cast as Oliver, and Keoghan told Variety that his big graveyard scene was improvised.

The movie has also inspired its fair share of controversy, which certainly hasn’t hurt online engagement. The movie inspired a trend of IRL rich people dancing around their large homes to the song “Murder on the Dancefloor,” as seen in the movie’s final sequence. While some social media users have argued that the people creating this trend missed the entire point of the movie, others have pushed back, noting that the whole story is about a boy who wants to be rich — a position Fennell endorses herself.

All of these different approaches to the movie have added up to a significant wave of Saltburn engagement. At this point, there are too many viral Saltburn videos to count. People who haven’t seen the movie have probably still heard of it, or seen a video built around it and its viral moments, songs, or ideas. Fennell made the perfect movie for the internet. My only wish from here on out is simply that we get to see more of Barry Keoghan being a creepy little guy.

Saltburn is currently streaming on Amazon Video.