Keeping up appearances is par for the course regarding the elite. And in Mark Mylod’s The Menu, this extends to the cuisine consumed by prominent people, particularly those who can afford (or pretend to afford) a night at Hawthorne.
The renowned and exclusive restaurant is run by Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), a celebrity cook and restaurant owner who has prepared a molecular gastronomy menu for guests. Everyone claiming to be a “foodie” or of importance is chomping at Hawthorne for a rare invitation. However, the appearances mentioned above are different from what anyone is expecting. The dramedy takes a sharp turn when the lives of the guests, servers, and kitchen staff are thrown into chaos and danger after a particularly bloody course filled with shocking surprises.
Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), one unsuspecting guest, feels that something is off from the moment she sets foot on the coastal island that houses the upscale eatery. Having the misfortune of attending the restaurant with the obnoxious and self-proclaimed foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), Margot’s world is turned upside down when Slowik’s strange recipes are inherently tied to life-threatening happenings at Hawthorne for both the guests and Hawthorne’s staff. Every lavish menu item that is dished out brings each person closer and closer to highly dire circumstances, ones you’ll have to see to believe.
It’s difficult to delve into every aspect of The Menu without spoilers, so just trust me when I say that the events that unfold are wickedly entertaining and peppered with just the right amount of humor and macabre to keep you engaged. In addition, all previously related elements bring forth the best in the film’s ensemble. Not one person misses a beat during the entire runtime, and it’s purely entertaining to sit there and watch such a tremendous cast under Mark Mylod’s thumb.
Anya Taylor-Joy puts forth another fine performance to add to her impressive growing body of work. As Margot, she is the one who’s least enamored by the idea of Hawthorne, and she’s even more doubtful of Slowik’s prowess as a chef. This makes for some of the film’s more humorous moments, and Taylor-Joy’s comedic timing is impeccable. Hong Chau, as the Hawthorne manager Elsa, is the only person who rivals Taylor-Joy in this respect. To be frank, The Menu wouldn’t be as good as it is without Chau. Aside from Slowik, Elsa runs the show. From the moment Elsa greets Hawthorne’s guests, she is a riot. A straight shooter, she’s as blunt as Simon Cowell telling an American Idol or X-Factor contestant that they have a horrendous voice. Chau steals every scene she’s in, and while her character is more of an antagonist, you can’t help but root for her.
The Menu does well at subverting expectations when pertaining to the characters we experience throughout the story. For the most part, there isn’t a clear protagonist among them; everyone boasts complications and nuance, and there isn’t only good or bad. True to form, The Menu showcases villainy in many ways, and one of the most vile is seen in the extreme foodie Tyler. Nicholas Hoult is exceptional as the pompous know-it-all and is one of the film’s purest evils, right down to his not-so-subtle superiority complex. He arguably rivals Ralph Fiennes as the movie’s “big bad.” This creates an interesting dynamic between Tyler and Slowik, with Tyler forever fawning over his favorite chef and Slowik not entirely giving Tyler the time of day.
Ralph Fiennes is pitch-perfect as Chef Slowik, and his disdain for the restaurantgoers is simultaneously hilarious and distressing. Hawthorne’s guests include an actor and his assistant, portrayed by John Leguizamo and Aimee Carrero. Then we have a trio of wannabe big shots played by Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr, and Rob Yang. Judith Light and Reed Birney play a married couple who are regulars at Hawthorne but are having marital problems. Rounding out the dining room guests are Janet McTeer and Paul Adelstein as an acclaimed food critic and her respective editor. Each character and actor brings something important to the story, and watching all the nuances play out on-screen is a pleasure.
Mark Mylod shows off his directing prowess with this dark comedy-horror/thriller mash-up, effortlessly capturing the drama in Succession-like fashion. While there aren’t many moments that one would call “action scenes,” there are some higher-octane sequences in The Menu that harken back to Mylod’s work on Game of Thrones with respect to the cat-and-mouse aspect of it, and the uncovering of secrets. The script by Will Tracy and Seth Reiss, both veteran writers associated with The Onion, might not have worked as well in the hands of another filmmaker and a different cast at the forefront. Although the film’s happenings are frequently shocking, its commentary on consumer culture, class, and keeping up with appearances is as sharp as the chef’s knife wielded by Slowik.
From beginning to end, it’s challenging to know what exactly you’re getting with The Menu, which is what makes it work so well. In addition to Mark Mylod’s notable direction, the blend of dark comedy and horror benefits from cinematographer Peter Deming’s keen eye for disruption. You can clearly see the plethora of horror experience Deming has under his belt (from Sam Raimi to David Lynch), including some extreme close-up work many would be envious of. Twists and turns are never expected, and attempting to figure out what might happen next will leave your head spinning. The satire is poignant in its criticism of the elites but also speaks to reigniting one’s passion and not falling victim to what is expected of you to succeed. Whether creating new haute cuisine or making someone their home-cooked favorite, there is nothing too great or small in life (and the kitchen).