Delivers its messaging in a highly entertaining manner, with well-observed dialogue, and some exquisite performances, especially from Hong Chau and Anya Taylor-Joy.
There’s been something of a plethora of food-themed horror movies in the last year or so – there’s been A Banquet, The Feast, Flux Gourmet, Fresh, and although it’s not immediately obvious from the title, David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future also very much fits the theme. The latest to join the list is Mark Mylod’s The Menu – starring Ralph Fiennes as Slowik, the Head Chef of an upscale restaurant that is so exclusive, it’s on its own private island. You have to put your name on a waiting list for months (if not years) in order to attend and pay thousands for the privilege.
Nicholas Hoult plays foodie Tyler, who prides himself on knowing every ingredient and technique that will go into this gourmet experience. His companion is Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) who doesn’t get what all of the fuss is about. Other guests include three youngish corporate dudes, a movie star (played by John Leguizamo), and restaurant critic Lillian (Janet McTeer). The group are greeted by hostess Elsa (Hong Chau – a stand-out of the cast) who gives them a tour of the gardens that provide the vegetables and herbs, as well as huts where meats and cheeses are aged or smoked.
This uber-privileged group arrive at the restaurant and the first of many, many courses is delivered to the tables – complete with titles on the screen that helpfully explain what the guests are eating. It’s all ludicrously pretentious, of course – there are foams and snows, gels and jellies – and it all comes to a ridiculous head with the breadless bread plate. McTeer’s Lillian gets some of the best chin-stroking dialogue, revelling in her own pomposity as she describes each dish, maintaining her superiority over the other guests and the food itself.
It becomes clear that Slowik not only rules his kitchen with a rod of iron – each course is punctuated by a clap that sounds like cannon fire followed by the cries of; “Chef!” – but he wants to extend his meticulous control to the guests as well. Slowik has done his research and precisely calibrated this evening with these specific guests in mind. The spanner in the works is Margot, a last-minute replacement as Tyler’s guest, who is “not even supposed to be here today.”
While Fiennes is reliably great, he doesn’t exactly match the backstory that emerges for his character, rendering it completely unbelievable. Maybe we, the audience, are supposed to question whether it’s true, as it could be another elaborate layer to the performance that Slowik has carefully constructed for his paying guests.
The Menu joins a growing list of movies that have come out in the last few years that have an ‘eat the rich’ theme – the most relevant probably being Craig Zobel’s The Hunt (2020) or Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation (2015). They have all tackled these thorny issues with varying degrees of usually surface-level success, but it matters less if the execution is entertaining and enjoyable. Squid Game has an incredibly simple and unsubtle conceit, but it’s the manner in which it’s delivered that had millions from all over the world tuning in.
The Menu delivers on a visual level, with exacting production design (by Ethan Tobman) that creates a convincingly slick high-end restaurant – all hard edges and clean lines – surrounded by the beauty of nature which must be tamed into perfect cubes before it can be delivered to the elite.
The costume design (by Amy Westcott) is another positive – with Hong Chau’s black and white outfit entirely fitting the pretentious aesthetic. Anya Taylor-Joy is decked out in the most retro 90s outfit of all time – slip-dress, leather jacket, and chunky-heeled black boots. This perfectly fits her aloof character, she’s not one of the uber-rich, making her infinitely cooler than anyone else there. She is deeply unimpressed by the theatrics and her refusal to eat most of the food leaves Slowik deeply unsettled.
Anya Taylor-Joy has peeled back the layers of rich characters before, in the under-seen Thoroughbreds (2017). Since her break-out role in The Witch, she has consistently impressed in horror movies Split and Glass, and Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho. She reunited with The Witch director Robert Eggers in Viking revenge thriller The Northman earlier in 2022.
Taylor-Joy excels once again here, as the audience proxy in this rarefied world. Her one-to-one scenes with Fiennes are where the chinks in Slowik’s armour become evident and she brings the best out of him, performance-wise. Hoult has also recently been demonstrating his comedy chops on The Great, and he gets another chance to stretch those muscles here.
Obviously, the less said about how things escalate, the better (and the trailer is best avoided if you want to be surprised). Safe to say that there are twists and turns, some of which are more predictable than others. The highest-end restaurants in the world which are built around unimpeachable Head Chefs who cannot be questioned or challenged can easily be compared to cults. That is abundantly clear from the get-go here, and it’s not just the staff who have unquestioning allegiance to Slowik. Tyler treats him with reverent awe, and is determined to impress him with his knowledge.
The Menu isn’t doing anything particularly ground-breaking, especially when there are other films at this very festival tackling similar themes. But it delivers its messaging in a highly entertaining manner, with well-observed dialogue, and some exquisite performances. It’s nihilistic, world-burning feel is more caustic than some of the other more toothless attempts at the same messaging. Anya Taylor-Joy and Hong Chau stand out of the ensemble, and Hoult is reliably hilarious. It’s no surprise that the writers and director has crossed over from Succession, as this has a similar skewering of the rich and powerful. A tasty treat indeed.