I saw the film Snowpiercer at Atlanta’s ancient Plaza Theater a few years back. It was a good time; a weird, exciting movie at a weird, grungy place.
At the end of the film (spoilers), the protagonist breaks his way into the conductor’s car where the principal antagonist (Ed Harris) lives. As the hero travels through the final compartment, about to meet the big bad, I took a guess at exactly what big bad thing the villain would be doing when we meet him.
Eating steak, specifically.
I was right—but surprised to be so. Snowpiercer is nothing if not unique, and finding such a common movie cliché tucked in at the end was jarring. I don’t think it hurt the film, but I wondered why they chose to use it.
The answer is simple: it’s effective. Visible eating is gross. A villain eats. It’s evil.
We are all evil.
In googling for other examples, I came across a tumblr called MovieVilliansEating, created expressly to chronicle this cliché. Before seeing the list, I thought “sure, it’s overused.” But a quick glance through the gifs showed me just how often it happens. As in CONSTANTLY.
Werner Herzog once said, “there is such a thing as the bliss of evil.” I now understand now what he meant: pasta.
There are two basic versions of this cliché as it relates to the villain.
The first version goes something like “I’m so not threatened by the protagonist that I’m going to continue nonchalantly with my meal during out first meeting.” The Ed Harris-train conductor in Snowpiercer fits this model.
Game of Thrones LOVES this. Want to see a ruthless bad guy in his element? Watch him sawing into some meat. The show runners even introduced us to Tyrion Lannister as he is making his dinner, elbow-deep in blood while carving up some beast.
Bludgeoning metaphors notwithstanding, we know he’s going to eat that pile of slop, and soon.
This version usually finds an antagonist is busy in the office, at home, or at dinner. The protagonist is either granted a quick audience or dragged in by bodyguards. The hero is breathless and emotional; the villain’s attitude is more look, my pasta is just as important to me as you right now.
Familiar with Ramsay Bolton? He’s the GoT poster boy for the bliss of evil. Know how many times he was shown eating food?
Me either. I didn’t count. That would be a lot of work. But I’m a fan with a good memory—trust me, it was a bunch.
The second version of the cliché is simpler. It’s more of a director’s choice for the villain: “I’m disgusting, watch me chew this food. It symbolizes my inner rottenness.”
It doesn’t matter the circumstances—if an antagonist eats and talks at the same time, it ups the nastiness. Imagine an alternate throne room scene at the end of Return of the Jedi. If the Emperor had been eating pizza, the film would have gotten an NC-17 rating.
Watching someone eat is unpleasant—but only if you are standing there not eating. Doubly so if your kryptonite is misophonia. But if you have both hero and antagonist chew their dinner simultaneously, it ceases to be an issue.
We all eat in front of others all the time, and most of us aren’t evil.
As my friends know, I try to incorporate what I see in movies into my own life. And since I only have a 50/50 chance of building an unstoppable train ruled by a cruel aristocracy, I turn to the eating cliché. How can I use this to my advantage?
Car shopping? It could work, but the logistics are weak. If I brought a hoagie with me into the salesperson’s office, I’d probably just look like a slob.
To make it work, I would need the salesperson dragged to my private dining room and jammed into a seat while I eat a steak. Only then do I get the intimidation factor. But this is difficult to arrange.
Maybe I’ve got it backward. You have to become evil first, then you get to use the eating thing as a garnish. I get the illegal cash flow, bodyguards, and private dining room… THEN I get to eat nonchalantly in front of heroes.
But becoming a crime boss takes time, so I’ll practice on friends in the short term. Invite them to dinner, sit them around the table, but only I will have any food.
I will eat my food while calmly explaining that morality is a meaningless social construct…
So who’s first? Saturday night ok?