★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Directed by Mark Mylod
The Menu is an extremely well-crafted dark satire-thriller that both seduces you and fills you with dread. In the world of five-star restaurants, there is a cult of personality built around celebrity chefs. The advent of shows such as Iron Chef has made it such that ordinary Janes and Joes can be brought into the high contemporary culinary culture, full of ideas like “mouth feel”, “plating”, and “amuse bouche”. The Menu works of the precept by pushing the theme to the edge by making the cult of personality into a death cult, with a side of heirloom free-range scallops. (chef’s kiss!)
A newly dating couple, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) are attending an invitation-only dining experience at the exclusive and hugely expensive island restaurant, Hawthorne. Tyler is a Hawthorne super-fan, completely obsessed with the work of the master chef, Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Margot is a date substitute, but she is willing to play along, but she is no foodie. She is the stand-in for the audience, as the rest of the guests are a blend of all the awful people you would expect to be in a five-star restaurant. When Tyler goes into near hyperventilation over every course, your eyes roll right along with Margot’s.
Also in attendance are food critic Lillian (Janet McTeer), fading movie star John Leguizamo (wonderfully funny!), high society regulars Richard (Reed Birney) and Anne (Judith Light), and three new-money bros Soren (Arturo Castro), Bryce (Rob Yang), and Dave (Mark St. Cyr) who are there because they are loaded with money and want to have bragging rights to have been to the restaurant.
As the menu rolls out, each serving gets some terrific descriptive titles like “The no bread-bread course” and “Tyler’s Bullshit”. Each one is lovingly captured in a still-life foodie picture. Of course, going into the movie, we know it’s going to be a thriller, but the movie allows us in the early courses of the meal to get to know the dining guests. And, they are each there for a specific reason. Except… for Margot. When it turns out that the plan is for all of the dining guests to die this evening, the guests first believe it to be a staged drama, and then the panic sets in.
The pacing of the plot is terrific, and the actual meal is truly fascinating. You keep wondering if something in the meal is going to be poisoned, or filled with nasty bits of sharp objects, but what you find out is that though there is life-threatening danger all around, the meal and the menu are a reflection of the actions that are about to take place. It is really clever in this way.
The script and the performances are loaded. There are some really well-scripted punchy scenes that will stick with you. When Soren complains to hostess Elsa (Hong Chau) about not getting bread with his no-bread course, she tells him cryptically “You will get less than you desire, but more than you deserve.” Soren is stunned, but the audience then knows… OK, Game ON. Chilling!
Hawthorne is an absolute gem of a restaurant to look at, and it captures the essence of a contemporary modern cuisine environment. It looks, sounds, and I’m sure if it were possible would smell and taste absolutely amazing.
Chef Slowik has a grudge, some deep-seated and real, and some delightfully superficial. (Poor John Leguizamo!). This has a very Agatha Christie feel to it. It reminds me a lot of the classic mystery killing-by-the-numbers Ten Little Indians. And, like most Christie-like stories, there is a common thread that runs through all the guests that make rough sense of the proceedings. Another good comparable film would be Ready or Not, one of my favorite films of 2019, which also featured a doe-eyed starlet in a preposterously violent situation borne out of a mundane event. Also, both films are incredibly watchable.
What is more difficult and a little problematic is how committed the culinary and serving staff is to Chef Slowik. I think it is harkening to the slavish devotion to the aforementioned cult of chef personality. But the fact that they are all willing to enter a culinary-based apocalypse was only loosely suggested. There’s a cultural statement being made, and as the audience, you’re expected to roll with it.
If Mark Mylod is a name you are not familiar with it, that’s because you probably don’t watch a whole lot of prestige HBO and Showtime programming. He has been a director for several episodes of Succession, Game of Thrones, Shameless, and Entourage to name but a few of the properties he has been involved with. This is, however, his first foray into feature films, and it is clear that he was ready to make this jump. The editing pops. He knows how to pull back to a wide shot to make you feel the tension, and then push into a tight close-up. It helps that all the actors are first-rate, but it is the close-ups of Fiennes and Taylor-Joy that are potent.
This is a movie full of great little moments. Hats off to writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy who give us just enough background to keep us engaged, but not so much that it bogs the pace down. The investment in characters really pays off, even for the background characters. There is a moment where the men are allowed to make a break for it… all for naught of course… and when the final guest is captured, he is rewarded with a sumptuous dessert. (Nice!) If you allow for the preposterousness of the murder/suicide cult pact, you’ll be rewarded with a movie that jabs straight at foodie culture in a way that has not been done effectively in ages. It both celebrates and dismantles it at the same time.
The Menu is rated R for violence, mild gore, language, and sexual suggestion. (trigger warning safe) The themes would certainly be over the head of younger teens, but anyone who watches a lot of the Food Network would understand this. The Menu is currently in wide release throughout the USA.