Director: Mark Mylod
Writer: Seth Reiss and Will Tracy
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, Ralph Fiennes, Hong Chau, John Leguizamo
As The Menu, directed by Succession regular Mark Mylod, unfolds with the sharpness of a steak knife, it’s hard to predict what deranged delights it will serve up next. A sumptuous multi-course meal that never feels overstuffed, the film morphs seamlessly from satire to horror, genres it combines in ultimately satisfying measures. The dishes are divinely shot, the humour deliciously dry.
Not everyone can appreciate what’s cooking, however, which becomes apparent from the opening scene in which foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) chastises his girlfriend Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) for carelessly ruining her tastebuds through her smoking habit. The two are among a group traveling to a remote island to participate in a fine-dining experience that costs upwards of $1,000 a head. That alone should signal the film’s intent to proceed as a snarling satire of food snobbery, a theme underlined as the rest of the guests are revealed. There’s a critic (Janet McTeer) whose genuine appreciation for good food has long curdled into pretension. And there’s a fading star (John Leguizamo), intent on pitching a food show to revive his career, but lacking either knowledge or interest in the subject. As they settle down to die at the pretentious Hawthorne restaurant, its chef, Julian Slowick (a fantastic Ralph Fiennes), turns out to be an unusual creature — a man whose gift for creation has since transformed into an appetite for destruction.
As each course arrives, food becomes a signifier of status — through the diners who display a lack of courtesy to the waitstaff, through a critic who wields disproportionate power over the industry by deciding which joints stay open, through picky eaters who’ve convinced themselves they could match the same quality of food at home if they wanted to. It’s evident through a group of finance bros (Arturo Castro, Rob Yang, Mark St. Cyr), who view the night out as an opportunity to flaunt their wealth but who might as well be eating sawdust for all they appreciate the meals. It’s also in the tension between a rich elderly couple (Reed Birney, Judith Light) a few tables over, having run out of dinnertime conversations, biding time in an unhappy marriage.
For all its broader ideas about class and the food service industry, The Menu is also intensely personal, speaking to any artist who’s ever had to trade their curiosity and creativity for commercial viability. Julian is a chef who’s recognised that while his pursuit of great art is eternal, the very act of eating renders his creations ephemeral. He’s hardened himself to the point where he can no longer be hurt, but in the process, lost his ability to feel. Through him, the film reflects anyone whose passion has turned dull under the crushing pressure of having to perfect it. In The Menu, almost every character is a failure in their own way, groveling for approval from people unlikely to give it to them.
Throughout, however, its sense of humour remains intact. Each dish is presented alongside a title card describing its ingredients, a gag that grows increasingly hysterical by the end. Terms like “epicurean salon” are bandied about. A wine is described as bearing notes of “longing and regret”. The film becomes more visceral as it veers into wild, delirious horror-movie territory but the strain of intellect remains visible. The Menu is inventive, unpredictable and thrilling till the end. It’s an immaculate concoction.