There has always been a tendency to fetishize high-end experiences, but the proliferation of social media has only exacerbated this fact. Instead of just making those in your immediate circle jealous, you can also become the envy of legions of strangers.
Take gastronomy, for example. Foodies have been with us for a long time, but now they can come into your sights with Instagram photos. It’s not enough to enjoy a meal – you need to make sure other people know you’re enjoying that meal…and you don’t.
But what happens when an ideological tipping point is reached?
In “The Menu,” directed by Mark Mylod from a script by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, we learn about the next evolution in fine dining. A clever thriller with a satirical edge and a deceptively wicked sense of humour, it tells the story of what happens when – apologies in advance – the tables are turned.
Playing in chapters shaped after class, “The Menu” deconstructs the classist underpinnings inherent in the kind of high-profile, high-priced dining experiences that so many yearn to celebrate. It’s a slow burn that turns into chaos, a film whose apparent simplicity gradually evaporates as the proceedings unfold. And by the time dessert is served, well… let’s just say you’ve never had a meal quite like this.
Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) waits on a dock with Tyler (Nicholas Hoult). The two are preparing to go to one of the most exclusive restaurants in the world, although Margot may not be as enthusiastic as her companion. They’re one of a handful of people dining tonight – just a dozen in all.
The restaurant is called Hawthorne, after the small island on which it is located. The chef is Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), an absolute supernova of the culinary world, one of the most famous and acclaimed chefs. The isolation of the location means that everyone who works there – back of the house, front of the house, etc. – also live there, dedicated with determination to the vision of the leader.
Margot and Tyler are joined in their place by a fascinating assortment of people. There’s the trio of tech bros – Bryce (Rob Yang), Soren (Arturo Castro), and Dave (Mark St. Cyr) – looking to show off their newfound riches. There’s faded movie star George (John Leguizamo) and his assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero), plus Hawthorne returnees Richard (Reed Birney) and Anne (Judith Light). Plus, we have famed food critic Lillian (Janet McTeer) and her editor Ted (Paul Adelstein).
But tonight’s menu is even more exclusive than what’s been served in the past. It is in many ways Chef Slowik’s masterpiece, a menu whose unfolding narrative becomes more intense with each passing dish. It doesn’t take long before customers realize that whatever experience they thought they were buying, what they are getting is something much deeper. Deeper… and darker.
The joker is Margot, whose presence doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the customers. More than anyone there, she exists at the crossroads of two worlds – those who serve and those who are served. And as the evening progresses, the lines begin to blur.
If this all sounds vague, it’s by design. “The Menu” is a movie that benefits greatly from relatively low pre-knowledge. If you’ve seen the trailers, you can probably figure out some of what I left out, but the truth is, even those previews are somewhat misleading. In truth, I didn’t really know what kind of movie I was getting when I sat down. Better for me.
I’m a huge fan of movies that defy easy categorization. There are a lot of terms one could use to describe the genre of this film – there are elements of thriller and horror, dark comedy and social satire… the list goes on. And yet, like a stew slowly simmering over low heat, these disparate ingredients gradually coalesce into something that is both beyond its core components.
And it’s delicious.
“The Menu” is both a fast-paced thriller and an indictment of class divides. It’s sometimes funny, sometimes dark. It’s a movie that has something to say, but never feels fully indebted to that message.
It’s also a very elegant movie, using the various courses in the titular menu as chapter headings to guide us through the movie experience. It’s clean, deliberately paced, achieving an engaging tonal balance throughout. When it spins – and it still spins – the viewer has no choice but to hang in there and see what happens next.
The services are excellent. Anya Taylor-Joy leads the way, weaponizing her naïve face at rest in a way that draws on the type of work she’s done in the past. Fiennes is exceptional as leader Slowik, a cauldron of sizable ego and resentment that bubbles up throughout. Much of what he does is restrained and internal, which makes the more abrupt moments all the more effective. They are the headliners, but honestly everyone is very good. The restaurant patrons are uniformly loud – kudos to Leguizamo, Hoult and McTeer, but they’re all really good – as well as the restaurant staff, with their “Yes, chef” energy; Of particular note is Hong Chau, who is notable as room manager Elsa.
“The Menu” is a provocative and engaging film, which has a lot of fun with the ideas it explores. It is well-designed and well-written, powered by superb performances. Whatever your usual order, you will find what you are looking for because like in all the best restaurants, everything is good here.
[5 out of 5]