On The Menu: Delectable Decimation of Haute Cuisine Culture

Bold black comedy thriller is one of the year's true surprises.

8 mins read

As a wickedly funny sendup of haute cuisine, celebrity chefs and foodie culture, the slickly entertaining The Menu is an enjoyable takedown of pretentious restauranteurs and their willing, wealthy patrons—and a clever horror satire that doesn’t miss a beat, or more appropriately, a course. It’s also a palette cleanser to some of the tonier awards season hopefuls, a true sleeper that is trimly, modestly scaled and savagely effective. 

Directed with razor precision by Mark Mylod (Game of Thrones, Succession), The Menu opens with a handful of guests en route to an exotic destination, almost Agatha Christie style, here a private and isolated Pacific Northwest island that is home to an esteemed epicurean enclave named Hawthorne whose proprietor is a wildly authoritarian celebrity chef played with relish by Ralph Fiennes. His carte du jour ingredient for evening? Perfectly cooked sadism.

Imperious Chef Slowik (Fiennes) hand selects Hawthorne’s patrons at $1250 a head and a minimum 4.5 hour, multi-course commitment. His kitchen staff, as if in military formation, bends to his every turn of phrase, standing at attention each time he claps his hands.

Hawthorne only accommodates a dozen lucky diners per seating and reservations must be made a year in advance. Exactly who would wish to dine in such controlled rigidity? On this particular evening Slowik has chosen a collection of obtuse, ultra-wealthy gargoyles, most steeped in their own egos, transgressions and secrets. While it won’t become clear for some time, comeuppance is the evening’s special.

The guests’ arrival on the island is met with cool command by the comically frightening maitre d’ Elsa, who refuses to accommodate any requests (“no photos!”) or tolerate any deviation from the master chef’s agenda (“there are no substitutions”). As played by the Vietnamese-American actress Hong Chau in an award-worthy performance (wait until you hear her pronunciation of tortillas), Elsa is a marvel of blunt candor and icy intimidation, and one of the year’s most memorable movie character.

The high-toned guests include a would-be bon vivant sycophant and foodie (Nicholas Hoult) and his unimpressed replacement date (Anya Taylor-Joy), a name-dropping, downslope Hollywood actor (John Leguizamo) and beleagured assistant (Aimee Carrero), a well-to-do married couple (Reed Birney, Judith Light) of Hawthorne regulars; an aloof, powerful restaurant critic (Janet McTeer) and a few cocky venture capital bros (Rob Yang, Mark St. Cyr, Arturo Castro).

As Slowik quickly sizes up, one of the guests, Margot (Taylor-Joy), does not quite belong, which proves an off-axis development that will throw a wrench in his best laid revenge. Margot becomes the chef’s initial target for persecution but later an object of fascination. Is she who she says she is? Or does she, as Slowik suggests, belong with the kitchen help “givers” rather than the “takers” in the dining room? What, if any, clandestine connection does she share with another guest?

Part of the fun here is sorting out the ominous, cunning game underway which is not clear to its chess piece participants until the film’s point-of-no-return second act. Shocking bursts of brutality, as when a sous chef commits suicide in the dining room, are written off as “conceptual” or “theater” by the guests, in very real danger. Why won’t anyone attempt to escape?

Unquestionably, The Menu‘s writing and filmmaking are often exactingly sharp.The most clever screenplay by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy frames both the courses and narrative through a sort of visual menu motif onscreen, presenting served dishes and their ingredients as bookends to individual sequences, each considerably upping the suspense ante. At one key moment, a guest’s finger is severed—the picture’s first real shock—and the tension is palpable, in no small part due to the perfect synergy of shot selection, editing and score. In another clever sequence, customized tortillas, emblazoned with finely stenciled evidence of individual patrons’ wrongdoings, are presented at each table.

As a dish of revenge served ice cold, The Menu is a perfect companion piece to Ruben Ostlund’s Triangle of Sadness, a similar open season skewering of uber one percenters on a luxury yacht cruise to hell. The Menu takes similar aim in its us-versus-them, service workers taking on the upper class dichotomy with perhaps even nastier just desserts. The “givers” have no choice but to commit 24/7 to the whims of the upper class; there is no way out of the capitalist machine that must be fed. And who typically pays? At the same time, by serving dishes that are the height of absurdity (including bread plates minus bread!), the “givers” get the last laugh.

The closing scenes, including a gallows humor sequence involving s’mores (which you will never think of the same way again), are note-perfect. Throughout, the film deftly balances its capitalist and foodie critiques with its lampoon of high-end restaurant mores, immense fun in the Hawthorne staff slavishly preparing dishes clearly so outlandish (and certainly not filling, as Slowik instructs the guests that they are “not to eat”) yet the patrons nonetheless fetishize the increasing nouvelle ridiculousness.

In the final analysis, the picture may not be saying as much as Triangle of Sadness—which asserted that the rich have no life skills and would simply perish without the resourceful underclass (which may be at least partially true)—but Mylod nonetheless has a great time at their expense.

The cast, a murder’s row of some of the best stage and character actors including the welcome Light (who gets little to do here but does it with gravitas), Birney and McTeer, are all invested, as is Taylor-Joy, a resourceful young actresses, who goes confidently head-to-head with the pro Fiennes, and is convincing in Margot’s ability to conceive of a way out of the melee.

Tech credits are down the line terrific, The Menu is superbly shot by talented commercial and genre veteran Peter Deming deploying modern, minimalist style, grippingly scored by Colin Stetson (Hereditary) and crisply edited by Christopher Tellefsen, moving a film with copious dialogue in a confined space briskly across 107 enjoyable minutes.

3 1/2 stars


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