The Cheeseburger: A Ticket to Freedom
by Na'dayah Pugh
Mark Mylod’s 2022 thriller The Menu explores the dangers of associating food with wealth, performance and artistry. The film follows Margot, a “common woman,” who is hired to accompany pretentious foodie Tyler to an expensive meal at Hawthorn, an elite, isolated restaurant owned and operated by renowned chef Julian Slowik. As the film progresses, Slowik reveals a plan to kill everyone at the restaurant, including all twelve guests, the restaurant staff, and himself. Through this, he intends to punish the guests for various offenses: wealth, arrogance, lack of appreciation, and pretentiousness, to name a few. Margot, however, manages to escape death by requesting a simple cheeseburger-to-go from Slowik, thus convincing Slowik to allow her to leave. This encapsulates the film’s central argument: only by rejecting wealth, performance and artistry can one find liberation and escape.
The first trap that Margot escapes is wealth. The prestigious restaurant Hawthorn is exclusive and expensive: only twelve tickets are sold per night, each with a four-figure price tag. There is a notable divide between the staff and the guests; main character Margot notes that her date, Tyler, didn’t ask the server’s name—despite the server showing recognition of Tyler—and Chef Julian Slowik, upon presenting the guests with a bread dish that lacks the bread, declares that “[bread] is and has always been the food of the common man,” and that because the guests “are not the common man, [they] get no bread.” However, Margot is a common woman; she lacks the wealthy, privileged background shared by the other guests. This fact is presented initially as one that ostracizes her from the rest of the guests, but eventually this idea turns positive—it sets her apart from the rest of the guests, freeing her from their privileged nature.
Another trap that Margot successfully escapes is that of performance. The guests are brought to the restaurant by boat after paying their expensive tickets. When Margot reaches for her first plate, Tyler smacks her hand away to take a picture of the unblemished dish. Each course is preceded by an elaborate speech and display, whether a game of cat-and-mouse between staff and guests or sprinkling graham cracker crumbs on the floor and dressing guests in marshmallow stoles before setting the entire restaurant ablaze. This attempt to turn something inescapable—primitive, animalistic human hunger—into a spectacle is present in both fiction and reality. Yet, Margot ignores the spectacle. When Slowik delivers his speeches, she is the only guest who sits with her back turned to the chef. When he summons her to his office to ask whether she wants to die with the guests or with the staff, she offers a simple, understated response. When he tells her he “was expecting more,” she only says, “fuck you.” By physically and verbally rejecting the performative nature of Slowik and his restaurant, Margot edges closer to freedom from both.
The final trap that Margot escapes is artistry. The emphasis on the artistic nature of food is demonstrated best by the character Julian Slowik, who boasts that “chefs play with the raw material of life itself” and claims that the culinary craft is “art on the edge of the abyss.” He even instructs the guests to not eat, reasoning that “[the] menu is too precious for that,” thus elevating aesthetic over nourishment. The preciousness of the menu becomes a matter of life or death; when Margot asks Slowik if she’ll be allowed to live, he tells her no because “that’d ruin the menu.” Later in the film, Margot explicitly rejects the idea that food can be art; when Slowik notes that she hasn’t touched her food, her response is simply, “there is no food.” At the end of the film, the cheeseburger that Margot requests is simple and genuine, like something served at a local diner. There is no elaborate plating or unnecessary garnish; Margot’s ticket to freedom follows her lead in rejecting the artistic potential of food.
The film’s resolution only comes when Margot has requested the cheeseburger, the antithesis to all three of these associations. It rejects wealth, as Margot pays for it with a crumpled ten-dollar bill. It rejects performance, as it is presented to Margot without unnecessary speeches to accompany it. It rejects artistry, resting on a simple plate without elaborate garnish. Despite Slowik’s earlier declaration that Margot will die with the rest of them, after she takes a bite of the cheeseburger Slowik allows her to escape the elite punishment that was never intended for her, a “common woman,” in the first place. Margot’s escape from the restaurant proves that liberation from the performative and elite nature of the culinary craft can liberate the individual: all it takes is a simple cheeseburger.
The Menu, Dir. Mark Mylod. Searchlight Pictures. 2022.