Evelyn Salt gazing to the horizon

Director Phillip Noyce’s espionage thriller "Salt" begins in North Korea, with a woman being tortured for information. Despite the torture, she insists she is not a spy. Two years after being taken prisoner in North Korea, Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is interviewing for office jobs, hoping to move out of espionage with the CIA and preparing for her anniversary with her new husband; the German arachnologist, Mike Krause (August Diehl), who was instrumental in securing her release from North Korea.

On her way out of the office, Evelyn is called back with her supervising agent, Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) to interview a Russian defector. As Evelyn walks out of the interview, the defector, Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) accuses Salt of being a Russian sleeper agent in the CIA where she works undercover as an oil executive. Orlov claims Salt is comrade Chenkov who was trained as a child as part of the KA-12 program, and will kill the President of Russia at the funeral of the American Vice President in New York City tomorrow, escalating tensions between Russia and the United States.

When Evelyn can’t reach her husband, she goes on the run, making her look guilty of being a Russian sleeper agent. This espionage thriller is interesting because it plays with our expectations, making Evelyn Salt an ambiguous figure with nebulous motives and shifting loyalties. Salt’s questionable loyalties made the film especially compelling for some of us, while it left other audience members confused. If you need the ending of "Salt" explained, keep reading. We’ve got you covered!

Salt goes on the run looking for her husband

Mike waits for Evelyn at the North Korean border

When Salt is first accused of being a Russian plant in the CIA, the first thing she does is insist upon calling her husband Mike (Diehl). He is her number one priority when she asks agent Winter to send a team to protect her husband. Her concern is that when the Russians blow a spy’s cover, they blow up the spy’s entire life, including their family. When she cannot connect with Mike via telephone, she successfully escapes the CIA facility where she works before making the risky choice to go to her apartment looking for Mike.

Once she has arrived at her apartment, it is clear Mike has been taken, leaving behind a toppled-over chair and a half-eaten sandwich. Evelyn retrieves her go-bag stopping to grab a spider from her husband’s terrarium before she escapes with their dog in her backpack — as the CIA team, led by counter-intelligence agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) — bursts into her apartment. When Evelyn leaves her dog with a neighbor, the way she looks at the dog is thoughtful. It looks as if she knows she will probably never see him again.

These scenes are the first hints to the truth of Evelyn Salt’s loyalties and her motives if you know what you’re looking for. Although she claims innocence and that she is only wanting to know that her husband is safe, the harder she works to evade the CIA team pursuing her, the more guilty she appears. But these scenes also reveal Evelyn to be resourceful, cool-headed, strategic, and highly trained.

Salt shoots the Russian President and is caught

Evelyn Salt raising her hands

It is after Evelyn escapes the CIA team in Washington, DC, heading to New York City that we realize she might be exactly what Orlov claimed. Once Salt infiltrates the cathedral where the Vice President’s funeral is taking place through the subway access tunnels, it becomes difficult to believe Salt is not a Russian spy. We might try to tell ourselves she is there to catch the real assassin, clearing her name; but when she shoots secret service agents, it becomes increasingly difficult to think Salt is innocent. When Salt shoots the Russian President at the U.S. Vice President’s funeral, after setting off several explosive devices, our fantasy of Salt as a heroic CIA agent is shattered.

But when Salt is apprehended by agent Peabody — even though she has him in her sights — she drops her gun, giving herself up, despite having the upper hand. This choice leaves agent Peabody confused, wondering why someone who appears guilty of being a Russian sleeper agent capable of murdering the Russian President would allow herself to be captured, rather than killing him so she could escape? Despite being confusing, this choice is significant and later becomes a very important plot point, revealing Salt’s loyalties, motives, and the brilliance of her plan.

She escapes custody and meets with Orlov

Orlov looking intense

After Peabody takes Salt into custody, she escapes the New York Police during a crazy car chase where she repeatedly shoots a police officer with a Taser, forcing him to ram other law-enforcement vehicles. When Salt finally escapes, she takes a ferry, rendezvousing with Orlov and a group of Russian agents on a barge. When she embraces Orlov, saying she had "almost run to him in Washington," it seems the verdict is no longer out — Salt is a Russian spy.

When Salt, whom Orlov calls Chenkov, asks if they have her husband, it is obvious she knew they had taken her husband to ensure she would carry out the assassination of the Russian President. Leading us to believe although she is a murderer, perhaps she did it for love? When a Russian mercenary shoots Mike in front of Salt, as an ultimate test of loyalty, we see her surprise, and the strength of will it takes to not reveal her devastation to Orlov. After passing Orlov’s cruel test, she was welcomed into the group, reuniting with her former classmates from the Russian KA-12 program.

After Orlov tells Salt the next step and where to make contact, Salt kills Orlov with a broken vodka bottle and all of his comrades, making it clear her loyalties no longer lay with mother Russia. With this act, it becomes clear, despite being trained and planted by Russian intelligence, Salt’s loyalty was to her husband above all else. It’s clear she would not have assassinated the Russian President if they hadn’t held Mike hostage.

Making contact with a Russian spy in NATO

Salt talking to a NATO officer

After killing Orlov and his men, Salt contacts the Russian spy planted as a NATO officer, Shnaider (Corey Stoll), whom she remembers from her training as a child in Russia. We are left to wonder why Salt is still moving on to the next step in Russia’s day X plan? Salt has lost her husband, the CIA, and FBI — plus, the NYPD wants her. She can never go back to her life in America, and she clearly has no loyalty to Russia, so what exactly is she doing?

Is she simply playing this situation out, trying to discover everything about the day X plan so she can intervene? We may believe Salt actually isn’t the bad guy, but what is her objective? Where do her loyalties lay? Maybe she wants to put a stop to the rest of Orlov’s plan? Or maybe she wants to find the rest of the KA-12 program so she can burn it to the ground?

Salt enters the White House in disguise

Salt enters White House disguised as a man

In the next phase of the day X plan, Salt enters the White House in disguise as the male attaché of a NATO officer. All Salt knows is she needs to gain access to the bunker below the White House, where she is supposed to take control of U.S. nuclear weapons. Shnaider is evasive about his role, only telling Salt it is his job to get the President into the bunker, and that he is "going home." It becomes clear what Shnaider meant when he steals a secret service agent’s gun running toward the president while shooting, before blowing himself up.

The President and his staff, along with agent Winter, are evacuated to the command center in the bunker below the White House, where Salt has been instructed to gain access to nuclear weapons. By this point, we’re really believing Salt has no intention of starting WWIII or killing the U.S. President, but it isn’t obvious what she intends to do once she has gotten into the command center hidden below the White House.

The President gets access to nuclear codes

authenticating nuclear control

After the U.S. President, Howard Lewis (Hunt Block) has been secured in the bunker with his staff, secret service detail, and agent Winter, the Pentagon informs the President that satellite imagery confirms Russian forces are preparing their nuclear weapons. The President sees the attempt on his life in concert with the nuclear weapons as an act of war, deciding to take control of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, stating, "If it isn’t on the table, it isn’t a deterrent."

The President goes through a complex confirmation process before gaining control of the nuclear codes from the Pentagon. While the President is gaining tactical control of the nuclear missiles, Salt is closing in on the bunker after having slipped through the exterior door, before cutting off video surveillance to the bunker, leaving them blind and at a tactical disadvantage. At this point it has become clear Salt is trying to stop a nuclear war, caring little about what happens to her in the process.

Another Russian sleeper agent

Agent Ted Winter with the U.S. President

In the bunker, CIA agent Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) requests a weapon to help defend the bunker against Salt, but is denied — only secret service may carry weapons around the President. After being denied a weapon, Winter takes a gun away from one of the secret service agents and kills everyone in the bunker other than the President, including the National Security Advisor (Jordan Lage) and the Secretary of Defense (Andre Braugher), who in his last moments shields the President with his own body.

After agent Winter reveals himself to be, Nikolai Tarkovsky, another Russian KA-12 sleeper agent to the U.S. President, Winter asks the President, "Should we look at selective attack options?" but the President tells him to, "Go to hell." After knocking the President unconscious, Winter selects two targets for nuclear launch. With this revelation, it becomes clear how extensive Orlov’s plans to destroy the U.S. were, and the number of children he trained and put in place to execute his plan.

Salt realizes agent Winter is also a Russian spy

Winter is sinister

Salt has finally made it to the windows of the bunker, only to see the U.S. President slump to the ground after being struck in the head by agent Winter. Salt realizes Winter is also a Russian plant and that he plans to launch nuclear weapons. She attempts to use his fondness for her as leverage, talking to him about why he didn’t tell her who he was, asking why she doesn’t recognize him from training as a child. Winter explains he was in the class before her, "And now it is my honor to launch the attack. America will suffer a painful death."

As the computer slowly loads the targets, the seconds tick away, while Salt tries to convince Winter to let her into the command room with him. He is hesitant, but finally agrees to let her in when something on the television draws his attention away. This is the moment before we learn Salt’s loyalty shifted before Orlov killed her husband.

Agent Winter learns Salt didn’t kill the Russian President

Salt confronts Winter

With the seconds counting down to a nuclear launch, the news breaks — the Russian President is not dead. He was dosed with a paralytic substance made from a spider’s venom to feign death. It is finally clear what Salt did with the venom she extracted from her husband’s spider. Winter says he had thought they lost her when Mike arranged for her release from North Korea two years ago. Elaborating, it was why Winter insisted Orlov take Mike into custody, making it clear to Salt, he was responsible for Mike’s death.

It is at this point Salt understands, "You needed somebody to take the blame. I’m the patsy," she says. Winter understands Salt intends to stop the attack, having nothing else left to lose. She gains access to the command center in the bunker and they fight as the seconds count down to the targets being confirmed for launch. It is only after being shot in the back by a secret service who has finally gained entry to the bunker that Salt deactivates the nuclear attack, stopping a war.

Salt kills agent Winter after being arrested

an injured agent Winter sitting

After Salt has stopped the nuclear launch, the tactical team, who discovers she was wearing a bullet-proof vest and has survived being shot in the back, handcuffs her. As she is led down the hall, Salt passes Peabody, giving him a meaningful look as she overhears the counter-intelligence agent learns Orlov has been killed. As Salt is led upstairs through the White House, she sees her chance to take out Winter. Strangling him with the chain of her handcuffs by hanging off the banister from Winter’s neck. After killing Winter, Salt is led out of the White House, across a snowy expanse of grass to a helicopter waiting to take her to an FBI detention facility.

Inside the helicopter, CIA counter-intelligence agent Peabody waits. He is told he only has the flight to question her before the FBI takes over the investigation. Agent Peabody obviously has questions about Salt’s loyalties and the choices she has made. He knows she was a Russian spy, but what is she now? The Russian President survived, Salt did not shoot Peabody when she had the chance, and the death of Orlov does not add up to Salt still being a loyal Russian Spy. It is obvious agent Peabody is piecing together the inconsistencies and wants clarification from Salt.

Agent Peabody helps Salt escape from custody

Agent Peabody pointing his finger at Salt

During the helicopter flight Peabody and Salt talk, with her pointing out the many questions that must swirl through his mind about the Russian President surviving the assassination attempt, about Salt not shooting him, and Winter being the Russian agent who was going to launch the nuclear missiles toward Muslim cities. After Peabody receives a text message confirming Salt’s prints are at the barge, he seems to accept she stopped the nuclear attack.

When Salt says, "They took everything from me, I’ll kill them," she isn’t just talking about her husband being killed, or her cover at the CIA being blown. Orlov and the Russian KA-12 program took away her parents; they took away her childhood, and even her name. They trained her to be a killer and dictated her future. This is the tragedy of child soldiers and coercive control; despite Salt being responsible for all the bad things she has done, they did not give her another choice, until she realized there was nothing left for her to lose.

Ultimately, agent Peabody removes Salt’s handcuffs, allowing her to escape from custody by jumping out of the helicopter and into the Potomac river, because he believes her, despite his protestations. After she tells him the Russian cell took everything from her, Peabody believes she will go after the remaining members. She may have once been a Russian KA-12 agent, but when they used her husband as a pawn, her loyalties shifted, making her a rogue agent, bent on vengeance.