Mark Mylod’s satirical horror riffs on elite capitalism—and what can happen when we’re alienated from true satiation
Hollywood loves a good contrast between civilization and savagery. There’s a well-established tradition of films in which eating, and the need to eat, are presented as atavistic forces, stripping off the veneer of civility.
Mark Mylod’s The Menu follows that trail of breadcrumbs forward and then back. Food in the film is consumption—both primal and decadent. But the more sophisticated capitalism becomes, the more people become meat. It’s better, Mylod suggests, to revel in middle-brow hungers—like, maybe going to the movies.
The Menu sniffs delicately at the cannibalism-as-capitalism metaphor prevalent in horror films past. In Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), a family of laid-off slaughterhouse workers turn their bloody implements upon human bodies; everybody, one way or another, is chewed up by the force of the market. In Dawn of the Dead (1979), animate corpses stagger around the mall where they once shopped, driven by a hunger for human flesh as they were once driven by a hunger for schlock. And in this year’s Fresh, a seemingly perfect boyfriend makes money by selling the meat of a woman he seduces to a wealthy elite of jaded cannibals.
The Menu doesn’t feature literal cannibalism, but it mixes similar ingredients into its own bloody souffle. The film is set at Hawthorne, a restaurant on a remote island, where diners pay thousands of dollars each for a lavishly prepared multi-course meal crafted by celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). The epicurean delights on offer are aesthetic and conceptual as well as gustatory. As an introduction to one dish, Slowik mournfully relates a tale of his own history of child abuse. The bread course is entirely made up of spreads without bread, as part of a commentary on class—namely, ‘All of you people are rich jerks, so I’m not going to give you bread.’
But Slowik isn’t content to just mock his patrons. He has more definite punishments in mind. As his intentions become clearer, and the diners begin to lose both their dignity and their digits, he realizes that one customer is out of place. Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) isn’t actually wealthy herself; she’s a sex worker hired for the evening by Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), a celebrity chef super-fan. Slowik is conflicted about Margot’s place in the evening’s festivities: Does she belong with the guests? Or does she belong with the workers?
Slowik feels a sense of solidarity with Margot, because they’re both service employees. They know what it means to lay down their skill and emotional labor before some indifferent rich asshole. Slowik’s murderous feast is a revenge on the wealthy boors who hire him for status, and are impervious to the subtleties of his artistry. He is particularly enraged by one man who has come to Hawthorne numerous times, but can’t name or describe even one meal he has ever eaten there.
“The message seems to be that when we are alienated from real want and real satisfaction, we feed a hunger that devours emptily and without cease.”
The grind of unappreciative clients drained the joy out of cooking for Slowik. He is, in a Marxist sense, alienated from his own labor. He creates, but he does not feel in control of his creation, and so can take no joy in it. He has been consumed, and therefore is determined to consume his patrons in turn.
By catering to the mega-wealthy with fabulous conceptual dishes, Slowik has lost touch with the realness of food and of creation. He wanders through the film with a hangdog expression, like he’s lost his last crouton, or perhaps his soul. He hungers for abstract violence, because his authentic hunger has been taken from him. The message seems to be that when we are alienated from real want and real satisfaction, we feed a hunger that devours emptily and without cease.
The ultra-wealthy demand jaded consumption, and so Slowik feeds them death (and s’mores). But the movie doesn’t cosign his revolutionary nihilism. Instead, it finds authenticity and satisfaction in middle-brow consumption. A lovingly cooked cheeseburger, complete with regular old American cheese, is featured prominently at the film’s conclusion.
That cheeseburger is a stand-in, arguably, for movies themselves. The film isn’t really a critique of capitalism at large, rather, it’s a critique of a certain kind of elite capitalism—of ultra-refined hoity-toity artsiness and over-intellectualized delicacies. It seems to imply that, if only Slowik had opted to spend his career in a diner, he could have been full and fulfilled the rest of his days without hungering for a pound of flesh.
The film’s embrace of cheeseburger culture seems at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek (as it were). The Menu itself isn’t exactly a fast-food kind of movie—it’s a quirky black comedy, not a Marvel blockbuster or, for that matter, a low-budget horror entré dripping with grease. Mylod’s certainly aware that low-level service work is quite miserable, too. You don’t escape capitalist alienation by switching one group of customers for another, or by forsaking celebrity chefs for budget restaurants.
The dilemma, though, is that you have to eat. You can make a meal as sophisticated as a breadless bread-plate, you can indulge in fantasies of red raw meat, you can grab some popcorn and watch a movie about the simple joys of popcorn. But The Menu knows that whatever your tastes, consumption has you in its teeth.