Absurd humor has invaded my life lately. I watched the sublime White Noise last week and re-watched Mark Mylod’s The Menu with an eye toward bigger messages about how we treat ourselves and each other. What we believe about ourselves and our purpose in the world matters too. Although the darkest of comedies, The Menu shows perhaps better than any other film that there will always be halves and have-nots, and staying true to yourself is essential.
An amuse-bouche is meant to be eaten in one bite. It’s a perfect layered bite that encapsulates every taste profile and mouthfeel in one small bite. Unlike the menu, which is best enjoyed over days or even weeks, it has to be a pop in the mouth that excites the diner for the meal to come.
The menu unfolds over a multi-course dinner in an exclusive restaurant strictly managed by Chef Slowik and his staff with military precision. Each dish is more decadent and weirder than the next. Nicholas Hoult’s Tyler and Anna Taylor-Joy’s Margot join a handful of wealthy guests, including a trio of finance brothers, a numb elderly couple, an aging movie star and her assistant, and an obnoxious food critic and her magazine director friend. They’re a bunch of villains who live in a bubble of ultra-elitist privilege and presumed superiority. The only thing more unpleasant than the guests is chef Slowik, who is so cold and demanding with his cooking that there is no joy. Not for guests or its staff, who live and work in unforgiving circumstances.
Our entry into this world is Margot, who listens to Tyler gossiping endlessly like a Reddit fanboy with enough terminology to fight her way to the top spot, but no real talent or knowledge to pull anything off. He is a sad little boy, hungry for approval. It’s obvious these two aren’t close, and as we’ll find out later, she’s a hired escort when Tyler’s girlfriend broke up with him recently. Margot has been uncomfortable from the start, and Chef Slowik is intrigued by the unexpected addition to the carefully planned meal. She is the first to notice that something is wrong with this island and with this meal.
As each dish comes out and Chef Slowik turns up the heat on the guests, they begin to realize just how much danger they are in. But, unfortunately, their pride and their rights prevent them from seeing before it is too late. The film ends with a single survivor and a restaurant consumed by melted chocolate and marshmallows as guests and staff slowly melt into each other. Here’s what happened to Tyler, Margot, the importance of Mr. Liebrandt, Tantalus, and what it all meant on The Menu.
The ending of The Menu explained
Throughout the evening, guests had secrets revealed and insecurities exploited. The finance guys are playing with the system to steal money. The movie star cheats on his wife; his assistant has been stealing it for years. The older couple are in a loveless marriage and Margot has a history with Richard Leibrandt. He hired her to pretend to be his daughter and agree with every word he said while masturbating next to her. There’s a subtext there that later plays out that Judith Light’s Anna may have known about the child abuse and looked the other way. We know that they are separated from their daughter, or that she may be dead. Considering how much Slowik is confusing Slowik with his mother over the meal, it’s clear he blames the complacent as much as the perpetrators.
Slowik knows everything about his guests (except Margot) and uses his information to stage a complex night of revenge and self-sabotage. He blames them as much as himself for making him the miserable person he is today. Slowik climbed the ladder of success until he was at the pinnacle of success, but he hates it. It has rated itself out of most income brackets of the world and formulates interesting and beautiful but heartless intellectual dishes.
His poor staff, who revere him as a cult leader, follow his every command and endure barbarism to learn from him. Subconsciously the thing he hates the most. He is numb and complacent. He is an accomplice of the machine of capitalism and of a self-proclaimed success put in his path by a critic who distills each bite into metaphors and derisory elements. While being surrounded by those who are so lucky, they forget how lucky they are.
Margot eats very little throughout the meal and refuses to give in to Slowik’s whims. She is neither a suitor nor a courtesan, and Slowik knows it. She is offered a choice as the meal progresses, and people begin to lose their limbs and their lives. Margot can become one of the staff or remain one of the guests, but she will die either way. She initially chooses to side with the staff because she is a service worker herself, but in the final moments she makes a bold choice and turns the tables on Chief Slowik.
Chef Slowik is disgusted by his customers who take his food for granted, but in reality he is disgusted with himself. He sold himself and he knows it. Slowik encourages his sous chef Jeremy to commit suicide, tortures his mother, cuts off an elderly man’s ring finger, and drowns his angel investor when he really wants to castigate himself. Finally, he admits to being a monster but thinks he was created by his guests, who demanded more and more of him.
When Margot, whose real name is Erin, tells him she’s hungry for a cheeseburger before dessert, he remembers why he’s cooking. At first he makes the burger to prove he can do the best, but while making it he remembers why he started cooking. The rare photo of him smiling in his house inspired Margot to ask for a cheeseburger. It was a time in his life when he was happy, before fame, money and awards. He did not abuse, exploit or belittle anyone and could simply fill bellies and souls. Anyone who’s ever eaten a great burger knows they have the power to do both.
He finally let Margo go with a take-out bag containing all but a bite of his dinner because he recognized that she had seen through his charade. She saw through the bullshit to the meat of who he really was and gave him a moment to think before he ended it all. When the gas goes out on her boat, she sits on the bow and smiles as she takes a huge bite of the burger. It’s a victory bite. She beat Slowik. It is the acceptance of the horror of the night and its release from this crazy place.
Some believe the bang heard when the island goes up in flames proves the ox was poisoned, thus sealing her fate, but Chef Slowik is a perfectionist and he wouldn’t kill her that way. His food was everything to him, and serving tainted or rotten food would be impossible. Oddly, the same obsession that dooms himself, his staff, and customers is what would keep him from poisoning Margot. Instead, he planned for everyone to die in a conceit-infused bonfire, and they did.
What happened to Tyler?
Tyler believed he was special. He idolized Chef Slowik and worked his way through dinner by appealing to his ego. He pretended to be a fellow chef when he was just a poser with the internet and a well-stocked kitchen. When his lack of skill is revealed, Chef embarrasses him in front of everyone and whispers something in his ear just before Tyler leaves to kill himself in the other room. Although we never hear what he says to Tyler, we can assume it’s condemning and humiliating. He’s probably saying something to the effect that he’s not worthy of the conclusion of the meal and that he should end his life immediately before wasting someone else’s time.
Tyler brought Margot/Erin to dinner not caring if she would live or die because he was a selfish sociopath who believed he owed this meal. His death was of no concern to him as he sincerely believed he would impress Chief Slowik so much that he would be spared. That’s why he kept taking pictures and sucking off the chef, even knowing how the dinner would turn out. It’s also why he didn’t run with the other men during the sexual assault class. His inability to see he wasn’t special is his downfall.
Why did Judith Light’s Anne wave to Erin at the end of The Menu?
Anne thanked Slowik before he set them on fire and waved at Erin when she could have tried to leave because she wanted to die. They all did. They were as much a product of their circumstances as Chief Slowik. Each of them participated in his dull life, thinking he was happy. Some even thought they were happy. The movie star and finance brothers all thought their money and power brought them happiness, but that only made them corrupt.
Only Anne seemed to understand at the end of the Menu that she deserved what she had. Perhaps she was aware of her husband’s indiscretions. On the other hand, there could have been child abuse in her home that she neglected, or maybe she just gave up and let her husband cheat on her, and her child stopped him. to speak. She thought she was a lost cause and saw that Margot still had a reason to live.
Purgatory and Tantalus
Chef Slowik’s former restaurant, Tantalus, is a clue that he and everyone else on the island are doomed. Tantalus was the son of Zeus and the nymph Pouto who was punished for several major affronts to the gods. He stole ambrosia from the gods to give to his people in hopes that they would become immortal and give him power over the deities. His most egregious crime, however, was feeding his son Pelops to the gods to test their omniscience. None of the gods were fooled by his ruse, and after his death he was forced to stand in a pool of water with a delicious fruit tree that was always beyond his reach in Tartarus. He could neither eat nor drink for eternity.
Tantalus’ story is one of generational privilege and curse. Just like Slowik, he was allowed at the table of the powerful, but he was not part of it. His selfishness cursed his family long after his death. Betrayals, murders and corruption tormented them. Most of the diners in his restaurant also had generational stories to tell. The young woman with the movie star came from the money, which is why she had no student debt. We don’t have any history on the finance guys, but they were decidedly corrupt.
Finally, Anne and Richard Leibrandt are like Tantalus. They were surrounded by delicious food and drink but couldn’t enjoy it. Curiously, their story may parallel Chief Slowik’s story of child abuse and maternal complicity. Even more curiously, Demeter, the only god to eat Pelops, was so distracted by grief over losing her daughter that she failed to see the deception. Demeter and Anne might be the same, and that might be why she chooses to stay and accept her fate.
The Menu is a searing indictment of classicism, working-class exploitation, the food industry in general, and meaningless success. The irony is not lost on me that the scathing indictment of food culture seen in The Menu is not unlike film culture. Reviewers, myself included, talk about camera angles and color saturation like someone wants to know our opinion. At the same time, movies like Best In Show, Real Genius, and Sucker Punch remain tried-and-true guilty pleasures. There is value in watching something made with love; it doesn’t all have to be a heady piece of mental gymnastics.
Obsession and vanity spoil food faster than incompetence. I remember an interview with Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead about their last movie, Something In The Dirt. These guys love making movies, and their fans feel it. When we lose sight of what matters, we fail, no matter how successful we are. At this point, we are just consuming empty calories. As Elsa from Hong Chau says, “You will eat more than you want and less than you deserve.” Let them eat cake, indeed.
The menu is streaming on HBO Max right now.
Tracy Palm Tree
As the editor of Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the editor.
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