This article contains The Menu spoilers.
Are you with us or with them? It’s an exceedingly simple question. Reductive, one might say. And yet, the inability to answer this query produces most of the anxiety and tension in what is a fang-toothed laceration of class, capitalism, and the pretenses of foodie culture. In other words, it’s a key ingredient to the new bleakly funny thriller, The Menu.
The horror/satire hybrid is directed by Game of Thrones and Succession veteran Mark Mylod, and is written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, who between them have writing credits in Succession, The New Yorker, and The Onion. That fits since the movie is a bit like a high-concept gag from those latter publications. If one squints, they can even imagine the same setup being used for either a faux news report about the service industry eating the rich or as a punchline from an old Charles Addams one-panel cartoon.
When we sat down with filmmaker Mylod, he similarly welcomes comparisons between The Menu and Succession.
“One of the great joys of Succession was to try to explore the vulnerability of the [wealthy] characters and the context of their behavior,” Mylod tells Den of Geek. “Not to forgive them, but to contextualize them. That was taken to another level for me, directorially, in The Menu. Yes, they are appallingly entitled, but I believe they started off as innocent vulnerable people who have become denatured by their choices and by ego, and financial privilege.”
Hence the immaculate evening planned by Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) in The Menu. See, our dear Chef has reached his limit with presenting art only to an elite class of takers, many of whom care not a crouton for the agonies and ecstasies of culinary creation. So he’s decided to punish them by deconstructing their lives as if they were so many shades of parmesan, and then ending them in a fiery explosion in which they’re all dressed like a S’more (the apparent epitome of our broken, homogenized culture in Slowik’s mind). And… he does it! He burns them all to death, real good! We even see the melting chocolate run down their faces.
As a title card surmises at the movie’s end, the evening’s dessert included the staff, the restaurant, and the customers among its ingredients.
On a certain level, it’s one extremely dark joke played out across 106 minutes. Yet the reason the movie lingers in the mind even weeks after watching it has little to do with just the punchline or the self-satisfied smirk on Slowik’s face as he gears up for the grand finale. Rather it’s because the world it presents isn’t quite so binary as “are you with us or with them?” And on a certain level, everyone agrees the flames are a necessary evil. Let us explain…
Why Do None of the Characters Fight Back or Leave?
There is of course a reason that most of the evening’s guests were invited on that island, with the special exception of Anya Taylor-Joy’s Margot (who we’ll get to in a moment). Chef and his cult-like line of cooks have meticulously planned each’s demise for ostensibly good reasons. Their first victim is the corrupt billionaire who owns Chef’s island restaurant. He’s disposed of by drowning (he doesn’t deserve a fine last meal, obviously); next is the food critic and gatekeeper for the elite (Janet McTeer) who’s made her career by building and destroying the actually gifted, including Slowik; and there’s even room for those mediocre artists who betrayed their craft for dollar signs (John Leguizamo). On and on it goes.
However, the movie never answers a simple question: Why don’t they just leave? When you count the three finance tech bros, Leguziamo’s movie star and his assistant (Aimee Carrero), and the mysterious Margot, there’s enough young people who don’t want to be here to at least put up a fight… but other than Margot, they don’t.
We posed this irony to Mylod, who is quick to point out there are several burly line cooks guarding each exit. Nonetheless, he admits there is more going on than meets the eye.
“From Chef Slowik’s point of view, they’re not getting their comeuppance, they’re getting liberation, they’re getting rebirth,” Mylod explains. At least in the mind of the chef and his minions, this is about cleansing the elite of their sins. And while not all of them are as fawning as Margot’s date to the festivity, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), they’re all susceptible to being brought in by Chef’s cult of personality.
“The absolute futility of escape coupled with the journey they’ve been on, that whisper in the air of Slowik’s words over that evening, over the dinner, the combination of those two elements is just taking them to a place of absolute naked submission,” the director adds.
Mylod also compares the experience to one of the landmarks of surrealist cinema, Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), in which the wealthy and elite gather for a hellish dinner feast that they’re never able to leave—and no reason is ever given.
“A big influence was The Exterminating Angel,” says Mylod, “and the sense of culpability of those diners, which we try to imbue the whole run of our film with, so there is a sense of almost a return to innocence from the diners by the end of the piece.”
Why Does the Chef Spare Margot?
The person Chef Slowik poses the question of “are you with us or with them” to is “Margot,” Taylor-Joy’s seeming daughter of privilege who agreed at the last minute to accompany foodie beau Tyler (Nicholas Hoult). She is the stray ingredient the Chef cannot reconcile; the undercooked lamb; the fly in the foie gras.
As the Chef later confers with Margot, he recognizes in her someone else who works in the service industry, and indeed she turns out to be a member of the world’s oldest profession. Tyler literally paid her to be there that night. For that reason, Chef’s determined to have her pick between “us” and “them,” although the exercise is ultimately meaningless. Either way, Slowik plans to consume her in the same flames that eventually equalize us all in the dust.
In effect, Taylor-Joy is asked to play the everywoman, an avatar for the audience to view this scene of wealthy entitlement around her with contempt. But she also lets the movie off the hook from its most flattening satirical points. For Erin—Margot’s real name—also recognizes the arrogance of pretension that Chef oozes out with every presentation of his next course. The entire meal is a monument to his own inflated sense of self-importance. That Erin/Margot calls this out saves her life.
She refuses to bask in his genius or eat his food. Her refusal to buy into the hype that was begun decades ago by McTeer’s food critic intrigues Slowik more than her innocence as a fellow former dreg of the working class. After all, the reason he admits he brought the critic into a surreptitious suicide pact is because her single review in the ‘90s used the words “puts him on the map.” Who’s map, he now laments?
The critic helped craft Slowik’s undeniable talent in the kitchen into a desirable commodity that became so celebrated that he ultimately found himself priced out from feeding the type of people he cares about: Those who genuinely want to be wowed by his food, as opposed to his status. Now he can no longer simply make good food; he must make statements that become as meaningless as a first course created entirely of seaweed.
Margot is never impressed and refuses to play that game. She also refuses to see this as a story of simply us vs. them. She certainly can relate more to Chef than Tyler, the foodie monster we later learn knowingly brought her to a death trap. At least Slowik is honest with her about what he plans to do. And when she sneaks into Chef’s cottage, she finds a photo she can actually see herself in: that of a young Fiennes superimposed to be “Employee of the Month” at a hamburger shack.
It’s in that moment that Margot sees the bullshit in a bullshit artist. If Slowik really wished to be free of the burden of appeasing the wealthy leeches of society, he could leave his current restaurant and intentionally start one that is economically friendlier and aimed at the middle or working class. There is no need to murder his sycophants and admirers, even taking his hapless brainwashed line cooks with him. The truth is, however, he likes being worshipped as a tortured genius, he just wishes it was by people he likes to be around.
So Margot does something no one has done in likely decades: She challenges him. After losing his trust by trying to radio for help, she gains something more important from the artist—respect. She says what likely most people who ever enjoyed being in a burger shack would: The food he’s selling is intellectual junk, every bit as affected and masturbatory as Tyler’s ceaseless prattle that demystifies how it’s made. Does Chef want to impress her? Then make something that actually tastes good. She orders a cheeseburger.
Despite claiming time and again that this evening’s last supper has been meticulously planned, the only time Fiennes reveals a sense of fondness or enjoyment on Slowik’s face is when he’s slapping some American cheese on two eight-ounce patties for Taylor-Joy. She only takes a single bite, but it’s enough to remind him that, just perhaps, he isn’t an artist who’s out to satisfy his own muses—he likes to be truly admired and appreciated by those who can only afford astonishment.
“Ralph’s character and Anya’s character are about connection,” Mylod tells us. “Ultimately, she has manipulated him. He also realized that she’s manipulating him but he allows her to win. All the unspoken business is in the final discourse between them and the burger. It’s a mutual understanding… and he allows her to go ‘checkmate.’”
Margot gives Slowik that old, forgotten feeling. And she, in turn, gives the movie a chance to appreciate that even in a parable about classism, capitalistic exploitation, and how even art is commodified into nothingness, the world is not as simple as a S’more. There is something enjoyable in watching a bunch of crooked businessmen decorated in marshmallows and chocolate hats as the flames lick nearer, but this is a hell of our own collective making. And a chef who allowed himself to end up in such a restaurant is far more complicit than he lets on.
What Does the Final Shot of Her Eating the Burger At the End Really Mean?
During the final, final moments of the movie, the Chef’s staff and admirers are consigned to the dustbin of history and Margot is alone in the Pacific Ocean where her boat has run out of gas. Her only company? The remnants of the Chef’s last creation… a cheeseburger.
The closing shot of the movie is thus her biting into the burger and hearing a faint clap in the distance. Some we’ve talked to have speculated that this could hint at the meat being poisoned—that the Chef let her go because he knew the burger would kill her anyway. After all, Elsa (Hong Chau) suggested that if their meat ages just one day longer than usual, it would prove lethal. Could there be something sinister in the burger?
Mylod dispels those theories, thankfully. While he welcomes audiences to interpret whatever they will from the ending—and indeed admits they had several ideas in the script, including Elsa coming back on the boat—the closing shot of the burger is ultimately “a victory bite, if you like. It’s a fuck you, I beat you!”
Still, Margot, née Erin, is the last person in the world to experience Chef’s culinary triumphs, cheeseburger though it may be. As she bites down into it, with the sound of his clap ringing in her ears, she’s also devouring the last of his ephemeral legacy. And you know what? It’s good.