Mark Mylod’s film, “The Menu” apparently follows a couple, Tyler and Margot, to the restaurant (named Hawthorne) owned by celebrity chef Julian Slowik, which is located on an island that can only be accessed by a private boat. Along with them are Lilian (a food critic), Ted (Lilian’s editor), Richard and Anne (an aging and wealthy couple), George (a movie star whose fame is dwindling), Felicity (George’s assistant), and a trio of businessmen, Soren, Dave, and Bryce. As soon as they reach the island, Hawthorne’s Maître d’hôtel, Elsa, points out that Margot isn’t on the guest list. Going by Margot and Tyler’s reactions, it seems like Tyler was going to bring someone else, and Margot is just the replacement. But the truth is far from it, and it is essentially the thing that causes Julian’s macabre multi-course meal to unravel.
Major Spoilers Ahead
The Weird Design Of Oppression
Somewhere along the halfway point of “The Menu,” Julian makes it obvious that this is going to be his and his customers’ final meal. Why? The reason is multi-pronged. Julian hates Lilian and Ted because she has shut down many restaurants with her reviews. He hates Richard and Anne because they’ve spent their money to eat at Hawthorne eleven times but doesn’t remember a single dish Julian has organized. On the one day that Julian wasn’t working, he went to watch George’s movie, and he didn’t like it. Felicity is George’s manager, so she has to die, too (even though she did intend to cut ties with him). Soren, Dave, and Bryce work for Doug Verrick, Julian’s angel investor. Hence, they think they basically own Julian. As Julian wants to free himself from Verrick and his investors’ clutches, Verrick and his three stooges are fated to die too. Tyler is a fanboy who thinks he knows more than the cooks in Julian’s kitchen but can’t cook, even though his life depends on it. Therefore, he has to die too. Margot is the odd one out, and that’s why she’s given a choice to die with the customers or with the cooks.
When that line is drawn, we understand that in that room, Julian thinks he’s the oppressor, and his customers are the ones who need to be oppressed. Through his food, his monologues, and his acts of violence, he shows the customers that, due to their opulence and wealth, they have become powerless. Maybe in the outside world, they’ve wielded influence to oppress the likes of Julian. But when they’re put in a room, their lack of survival skills is apparent. So, they plead and bargain with Julian, but they never really protest, thereby enabling the chef’s oppression. Julian seems to have a disdain for his cooks as well, either because of their inability to be better than him (Jeremy) or for not reciprocating his romantic advances (Katherine). However, both Jeremy and Katherine strive for Julian’s validation, thereby fueling his oppression. Margot, who isn’t as wealthy or pseudo-intellectual as the rest, has the will to fight and reverse engineer Julian’s manipulative tactics and therefore survives. The problem with the film lies in the fact that Julian sees a bit of himself in Margot and sees himself as somebody who has been oppressed by the wheel of classism and capitalism. He even quotes Martin Luther King Jr. to drive his point home.
Julian And Margot’s Humble Backgrounds
When Julian learns that Margot isn’t actually Margot, but an escort named Erin, who is accompanying Tyler and once provided her services to Richard, he oddly focuses on her. There are two reasons for that. Firstly, he wants to deconstruct her because, unlike the rest of his customers, he doesn’t know her backstory, and that’s ruining his final meal. Secondly, as he starts to understand that there’s no way for him to make her eat his food because of her dogged determination to not conform to his rules, he paves the way for her liberation. How? Well, after telling Tyler to kill himself, Julian allows Margot or Erin to get a barrel for the dessert unsupervised. It seems like he fully expects her to deviate from her task, go to his house, learn about his backstory, and call for help (the coast guard who arrives turns out to be a member of the staff too). The backstory allows Erin to disarm Julian, and the call to the fake coast guard proves that Erin wants to live and hasn’t fully submitted to his shtick. And here’s the kicker, as Julian thinks he and Erin are one and the same, I am guessing that he sees her liberation as the one good deed of his miserable life.
Why does Julian think that way? Why does he take such a convoluted path to free Erin? Why doesn’t he just let her go? As far as I can decipher, he thinks he’s a slave to the system. He has to follow his obsessive techniques and theatrics until his last day. Or else he’ll be seen as a fraud. And, even in his dying moments, if he’s labeled as such, his life and his death will be in vain. So, maybe that’s why he executes his plan in this twisted fashion so that it seems sophisticated and exclusive. But by associating himself with Erin because of their lower-to-middle-class origins, Julian really thinks he’s oppressed. That he’s a victim of classism and capitalism. That he’s as helpless as Erin, who professionally works as an escort. Erin doesn’t have an out, even if she has lost interest in the job. Julian did, and yet he opted for the path provided by Verrick and his customers. He is not the victim of the system from any perceivable angle. He is a White man in America who has simply chosen to be self-destructive after developing some kind of God complex. And you can say that that’s Mylod’s entire point. However, then comes the cheeseburger.
Julian’s Cheeseburger And Its Problematic Presentation
While examining Julian’s room/home/not-so-humble-abode, Erin comes across an old image of him making a cheeseburger at a fast-food joint. She remembers him lamenting about losing love for the art of making food. She puts two and two together and realizes that Julian’s love for making food needs to be reignited by reminding him about the days he used to make “real food” instead of all this overly intellectualized, deconstructionist nonsense. So, Erin challenges Julian to make a cheeseburger. He obliges and makes the best goddamn cheeseburger. Erin likes it and tells him to pack the rest “to go.” Julian allows that as well. And as Erin makes her way to the speedboat that the coast guard brought in, Julian turns the restaurant, the cooks, the customers, and himself into a s’mores-based dish, and everything goes up in flames. Erin watches from a distance, enjoying her cheeseburger and wiping her face with Hawthorne’s menu. This is clearly supposed to be a “girl boss” moment, I suppose, where the underdog relishes her bittersweet win, such as in “Midsommar,” “The Witch,” or “Ready or Not.” Is it, though, really? Because that cheeseburger represents something sickening.
When Erin connects with Julian via the cheeseburger and vice versa, it seems like Mylod, Reiss, and Tracy’s plea to see broken billionaire monsters as humans because that’s the only way to get to them. They’re saying that underneath their layers of arrogance and masculinity, which have been created due to their proximity to wealth and glamor, there’s an ordinary kid who loves the simpler things in life. If someone can reach out to that kid, then maybe he’ll let you live. It won’t break the cycle of oppression and classism. But, for the time being, someone like Erin will live to see another day. And that doesn’t sound anti-classist at all. That sounds like the writers and the director are reaffirming the fact that everyone who isn’t in the top 1% is at the mercy of the rich and influential. But instead of telling us to rebel, to speak truth to power, or to break the wheel, they are asking us to coddle and care about the likes of Julian because that’s the one thing that these megalomaniacs want: empathy. If we don’t, they’ll simply set the world on fire and take all of us down with them.
To be clear, that could’ve been the concluding message of “The Menu,” i.e., classism is relentless, and it’s going to haunt us for as long as we are alive. There are just momentary wins and nothing else in between. But the film’s framing of the final few minutes doesn’t actually convey that. The makers genuinely believe that Julian isn’t the monster he claims to be. He is merely a misunderstood villain who has gone off the deep end and is struggling to make his way back to normalcy. He simply needs to feel seen, like Erin saw Julian. And that’s where the movie totally lost me. I think it peaked around the 40-minute mark and then gradually decreased in terms of its intensity, horror, and socio-cultural commentary. However, the concluding moments ruined what would’ve been a tepid viewing experience. I won’t say it’s one of the worst movies of the year. It’s certainly not as smart or as meta as it thinks it is. The performances are great. The editing, some of the cinematography, the production design, and the culinary moments are worthy of applause. The script, though, needed some more time in the oven in order to give us a story that complemented its themes instead of the barebones story with a surface-level commentary on classism that we got.