A film review by Craig J. Koban January 14, 2023

Rank: #10


2022, R, 107 mins.

Ralph Fiennes as Chef Slowik  /  Anya Taylor-Joy as Margot  /  Nicholas Hoult as Tyler   /  Hong Chau as Elsa  /  Janet McTeer as Lillian Bloom  /  Judith Light as Anne  /  John Leguizamo as Movie Star  /  Rob Yang as Bryce  /  Mark St. Cyr as Dave  /  Reed Birney as Richard  /  Aimee Carrero as Felicity  /  Arturo Castro as Soren

Directed by Mark Mylod  /  Written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy



I love it when films eviscerate their targets with a reckless abandon, and that's precisely what director Mark Mylod's THE MENU does to such darkly delicious effect.  

The film - his first in over a decade - has its crosshairs honed in on multiple targets, most specifically the disgustingly rich elite, the pompous critic (hey now!), social media celebrities, the obsessive meticulousness of the gourmet food world, and the equally fanatical foodies that prop up master chefs to an unhealthy pillar of hero worship.  Many of these targets (with the possible exception of critics...wink-wink) deserve to be humiliated in the most macabre manner possible, and THE MENU serves that up in ways that even I couldn't fathom going into it relatively blind.  Actually, the marketing for the film hints towards it being a black comedy (and it certainly is), but deep down it contains equal parts horror elements that - in Mylod's uniquely qualified hands - becomes something hauntingly deranged.  This is not the only film that ruthlessly interrogates the uppity one per cent (GLASS ONION comes immediately and most recently to mind), but this one ravenously goes for the jugular more than most.   

THE MENU starts modestly enough.  We initially meet a fastidious lover of fine cuisine in Tyler (a never been better Nicholas Hoult), who's elated to be finally given a lucrative opportunity to visit one of the most exclusive and posh restaurants in the world in Hawthorn.  Just how exclusive and posh is Hawthorne, you may ask?  It's all the way on a remote island where everything that's made and served is produced and sustained there.  Their courses are also served out over the course of four hours, and, yes, reservations are next to impossible to make.  The chef that heads up this whole enterprise is Julian (played with a reptilian chilliness by Ralph Fiennes), who Tyler idolizes as an artistic god with no equal in his field.  Tyler is joined by his companion, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who enjoys his company and appreciates being along for the ride, but is hardly as enthusiastic about the evening to come.  Journeying with them by boat to the island are (roll call): an over-the-hill movie star (John Lequizamo) and his beleaguered assistant (Aimee Carrero); an on-the-rocks elderly couple (Reed Birney and Judith Light); a nasty food critic (Janet McTeer) and her editor (Paul Adelstein) that seem to take great relish in championing or destroying restaurants that they see as either worthy or unworthy; and, last but not least, a trio of doucebag buddies that work in high finance (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro and Mark St. Cyr), whom are all essentially there for the bragging rights and not necessarily because they're food lovers.   

When everyone arrives at the island they are greeted by Julian's second in command in Elsa (played in a cold poker faced sternness by Hong Chau), who takes them on a tour of the various sights that make Hawthorn completely innovative and unlike any other dining experience (she does very aggressively warn the patrons that no photos can be taken during the meal and that Julian's residence on the island is completely off limits).  When all of the patrons are officially seated, Julian comes to personally greet everyone and informs them that every course that they're about to receive will have a special theme that will trigger an emotional response.  He also instructs that his courses are not to be eaten, but to be tasted.  This entire meal is a culmination of his entire career, and he runs his kitchen and staff like a ruthless drill sergeant.  Tyler could not be anymore elated, but Margot seems to be taken aback by the undulating weirdness of the evening, not to mention Julian's harshly detached manner.  The first course starts off exotically enough (which Julian introduces by an unnerving slap of his hands), but then the subsequent ones get odder and odder until...well...things come to a breaking point when most of the guests (outside of Tyler) immediately begin to suspect that they have not so much been invited to an evening of delectable eats but are rather being held against their will by a master chef that just may be a lunatic. 



THE MENU is an awfully hard film to talk about without delving into outright spoiler territory, other than to say that (a) Hawthorn and Julian are not what they appear to be and (b) something sinister awaits all of these guests.  I enjoyed the initial build-up in the film and the introduction to all of these various personalities, with many of them guarding secrets that only come to the forefront as the direct result of Julian's theatrical flourishes with his menu.  We get little clues sprinkled in here and there, but Mylod doesn't tips things off too quickly and instead invites viewers in to connect the dots.  For example, Margot sees to uncomfortably recognize the old husband and Julian, in turn, gets flustered when he realizes that Margot was not on the original guest list (she was a last minute substitution companion by Tyler).  Then we slowly discover details about the other guests, like how the movie star is struggling to get his feet back in Hollywood's door and how those fratboy financiers might have made their money through nefarious means.  And then there's a strange old disheveled and borderline comatose woman sitting alone in a corner and drinking the night away.  Who is she?  Why is she there?  I appreciated the manner that the multiple mysteries at the heart of THE MENU unravel as the many courses are being unleashed on the patrons. 

The film's juicily written script by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy takes no prisoners when it comes to pointing their finger wags of shame at these people, with almost all of them being the wealthy privileged few that seem to think that they can influence and buy their way out of any problem.  It would be easy (and somewhat correct) to say that THE MENU's targets are of the shooting fish in a barrel variety (rich = bad), but there's so much texture that Mylod sprinkles into the proceedings.  Most of these guest are, to be fair, dislikeable a-holes whose egotism and self-serving interests become more pronounced as revelations are unleashed during the meal (the exception would be Margot, who serves as more of an outsider and audience conduit into the madness that befalls this evening).  There's particular disdain being levied at Tyler himself, who begins the film as a fairly innocent, but compulsive foodie that - slowly and surely - is shown to be someone who's not on the level at all when it comes to just how far he takes his passionate hobby.  The screenplay finds sinister pleasure with Julian and his kitchen staff as well, and the manner that this film evokes the limitless absurdity of Julian's iron fist stranglehold over his workers to ensure that every course is microscopically perfect becomes equal parts amusing and frightening.   

And Julian himself is a wondrously realized villain and one of the most memorable of recent memory.  With each new course that he reveals with a zealot-like flair we grow to learn about elements of his past and his own frailties that predicated the type of unhinged control freak that he is now.  He's less a chef than a twisted cult leader here, with his minions dishing out outlandishly pretentious courses like bread plates without bread, scallops served on ocean rocks, and a meat entrée that comes from a deeply disturbing story from Julian's sordid past with his mother and father.  But Julian - in Fiennes' authoritative hands - is not a one-note, foaming-at-the-mouth madmen here.  To the contrary, he plays Julian with a soft-spoken tenderness and serenity that makes him almost more unhinged.  The manner that his loyal cooks will do anything - and I mean anything ­- to win over this man's affections is disturbing to the max, and they respond to every order - no matter how ludicrous - with a "YES, CHEF!" chant in unison that shows just what a Svengali-like stranglehold that this man has over everyone.   Like what Anthony Hopkins did with Hannibal Lecter before him, Fiennes has a field day here making his man of irreproachable refinement and intelligence come off so terrifyingly in the most modest ways. 

The cast built around Fiennes is perfectly assembled too, in particular Chau's Elsa, who starts off as a calm spoken and composed hostess/right hand woman ("Feel free to observe our cooks as they innovate!"), but then later shows that this facade of congeniality hides a heart as cruel as her boss.   I also greatly enjoyed Hoult's take as his Julian-infatuated fanboy who becomes more venomously arrogant and unhinged in his passion with each new course.  McTeer is also a highlight as her preposterously self-righteous food critic that's so in love with her takes on the food world that she can't see Julian's courses for what they actually are.  Taylor-Joy might be THE MENU's most thankless addition, who serves as the skeptical voice of reason for the entire night out at Hawthorn and is the first to see though Julian's deceptive pallor tricks.  As the film progresses we discover that she certainly does not qualify to be in the same company as the other affluent egomaniacs gathered here, which segues into her and Julian developing a strange focal point of shared past misery and understanding.  This culminates in one of the best and most unexpected scenes late in the movie that forces Julian to confront his history as a chef and what he has lost while on his descent into lunacy.  Taylor-Joy and Fiennes' scenes together play out in compellingly unpredictable ways. 

Where THE MENU falters, though, is in its home stretch, and the masterful levels of momentum and interest that the film creates leading into its finale aren't always sustained (the payoff to this dining experience from hell is a nightmarish doozy, for sure, but I appreciated the more subtle ways that Mylod fosters dread and unease in the build up to it).  Having said that, THE MENU - as far as black comedies and psychological horror pictures go - will stay with me for an awfully long time for the way that it takes great unfiltered pride in examining culinary violence being perpetrated on the uber well-off that perhaps deserve every bit of comeuppance that comes their way.  In simple ways, THE MENU roasts (in more ways than one) high society that's hopelessly full of itself, and that's precisely what makes it one of 2022's most enjoyably demented and creepily amusing dishes. 

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