This article contains spoilers for The Menu.
Recent filmmaking has seen growth in a particular subgenre that, for the sake of brevity, we will call “Eat the Rich.” We meet a bunch of rich people, they are dreadful, and then they are either murdered or exposed, or made to suffer in one way or another. We have seen it in Glass Onion, in Triangle of Sadness, and we have seen it in the anthology series The White Lotus. The message of these stories is invariably that “these are dreadful people and every bad thing that happens to them is something that they deserve.” This article will not speculate on why so many of these stories seem to be emerging at once, nor what issues in the wider world they seek to address. You probably have your theories.
There has been a lot of speculation, and criticism around this subgenre, complaining it all looks the same, that the satire needs to be more vicious, and claiming that the super-rich are too easy a target (which, in fairness, they are, but only because they are dreadful people who do incalculable material harm to the world and the people who live in it). And as they namecheck the entries in the genre, one of the usual suspects is always Mark Mylod’s gastronomical horror movie, The Menu.
But is it really?
A Menu of the Rich
It has all the essential ingredients—a rogue’s gallery of the ultra-rich, all of them dreadful, all of them with terrible skeletons in their closet. They are all taken to a remote island, because for some reason that is also an essential element of the genre. And then the torturing of our social and financial betters can begin.
At the restaurant Hawthorne, the guests are treated to an elaborate series of courses, each more avant-garde than the last, each unveiling more of the diners’ secrets and sins and eventually, punishing them. Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), and his staff who serve him with undying loyalty, set themselves up as judge, jury and executioner. A life of service has given this chef a window into the world of privilege, and the way it has abused and debased his craft, and this meal is his final judgment upon them all. As the final course is completed, the restaurant, Chef, staff, and customers all go up in flames. We are meant to feel catharsis—that on a certain level, justice has been done. They are certainly all dreadful people….
As we learn, Richard Leibrant (Reed Birney) is a client of sex worker EriMargotn (Anya Taylor-Joy), paying her to watch him masturbate and tell him he is a good person. That he has to pay someone to tell him this hints that whatever he has done is truly terrible. Meanwhile food critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) has seen restaurants close down after her negative reviews. The character listed on the credits only as “Movie Star,” and as played by John Leguizamo, is overtly dreadful to his assistant, actively moving to ruin her career to keep her with him. Soren, Dave, and Bryce are involved in some kind of high-level fraud while Tyler, Margot’s client and date for the evening, has willingly hired a sex worker, knowing she will be murdered, just so he can make a dinner reservation.
You should hate these people. But are they the movie’s villains?
You’re Eating it Wrong!
The thing is that the above sins, while terrible, are not the reason any of these characters are murdered.
Richard and his wife are chosen for death, not because of any great evil they have committed, but because they are regulars to the restaurant who don’t pay enough attention to the food.
Soren, Dave, and Bryce are murdered, along with their Angel investor boss, not for their fraud or even because they have taken ownership of the restaurant, but because they ask for substitutions in their meal against the Chef’s wishes. Tyler is punished not for trying to lead a woman to her death, but because his fanboyish commitment to learning the details of Slowik’s work does not extend to any actual culinary talent. He cares too much. Meanwhile the movie star is killed because he appeared in a film Slowik didn’t enjoy on his day off.
The crime Slowik is punishing his victims for is not exploiting or debasing his craft, as he claims, and he is not some grand arbiter of justice. Instead he is just a whiny artist complaining that his audience is consuming his work wrong.
It’s all right there in his big opening speech explaining to the diners exactly how they are supposed to enjoy their meal—right down to not photographing their plates. They need to dine his way.
Death of the Chef
If Slowik was a filmmaker, he would be murdering people for watching movies on their phone, for talking in the theater, or eating as they watch—for giving films unsympathetic reviews or for being massive, nerdy fanboys full of theories and continuity questions that aren’t in line with the filmmaker’s vision of the work. We at Den of Geek would get murdered for at least a few of these. Anyone who did not watch films in the cinema in rapt, reverent silence would be on the chopping block.
In short, Slowik would probably be Christopher Nolan.
This is why Margot is able to escape from the restaurant’s deadly dessert, and in a climax that’s oddly reminiscent of Pixar’s Ratatouille. She is not allowed to go because she is an innocent—Slowik already knows that she is an innocent, and a good number of his staff probably haven’t done anything wrong beyond answering the wrong job ad. She is allowed to go because she asserts her right as the audience, the right to actually enjoy her food, be nourished by it, and send it back and call it out when it doesn’t meet those needs. Because, ultimately, the artist doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as they think they do, and certainly not more than the audience.
It turns out that the real villain of The Menu is the guy who murders everybody. Who knew?