Reviewing a film like The Menu is a hilariously ironic task, because with every word I write to this piece, I become more aware that I am the exact product that the film is describing, deboning, and grilling. But behind the critiquing and the roasting lies some real optimism on love and passion and how we can potentially find that again in our daily lives.
Before we can get there, however, director Mark Mylod and writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy must present us with a simple premise whose commentary is as subtle as a frying pan. Somewhere, on a remote island, lies Hawthorne, a prestigious, exclusive restaurant known only to the richest. Run by Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), Hawthorne prides itself on the molecular process of cooking food, that is breaking down ingredients to their chemical forms. The result is a tasteful, intriguing multiple-course menu that blends food with concept art.
Of course, this entire presentation appeals to our small party of 12 lucky diners. Well, except one. Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) sees through the pretentiousness of everything, and frankly, so do we. But as you would guess, the critics and connoisseurs respond with their oh-so-sophisticated rhetoric to praise whatever it is they see and consume. But slowly, course after course, concept art becomes performance art, and things get more and more sinister as the night goes on.
Surely, we all understand what the film is saying here, that so much of our appreciation in the arts is just rubbish, with a good amount of it simply being used to feed our ego and make us look smart. Certainly, the ensemble cast is up for the task, no matter their roles. From Hong Chau as a deadpan but intimidating restaurant manager to Nicholas Hoult as the most delusional and ignorant foodie, you’re bound to laugh at one of the diner’s quirks no matter how small of a role they are.
But as The Menu continues on, the sledgehammer-level of subtlety fades away and becomes a far more nuanced question of the social roles we play when it comes to appreciating such art. A chef’s job is an extremely intimate one. They take elements of the earth, and with passion, create something that will go into someone else’s mouth and stomach. Without someone to eat the food, what is there to do for the person who cooks? And what happens when the people who consume over-influence the people who create?
This delicate symbiotic relationship is what keeps The Menu compelling to watch from start to finish. In addition to the hilarious jokes and the shocking set pieces, the script constantly challenges your thoughts and opinions on the characters, particularly Chef Slowik.
Fiennes is operating on a whole new level. Imagine his Monsieur Gustave from The Grand Budapest Hotel served with a side of Gordon Ramsay, seasoned with a bit of Marco Pierre White. Anything he says can destroy a person’s entire ego. It all comes down to the line delivery, the intentional coldness and stiffness of how he speaks, finding the right time to take a breath in between words, and last but not least, using that soul-searching stare.
Which brings me to why Taylor-Joy is the perfect opponent for him. The two of them come from opposite worlds (or do they?) yet share so much chemistry together, as we realize quickly that Margot was never supposed to attend this dinner in the first place and is inadvertently ruining Slowik’s “process to have a perfect menu.” The two actors spend a good portion of the film staring and jabbing at each other with their eyes and words like an intricate battle of wits, as Taylor-Joy demonstrates once again she’s one of the best young actresses working today and makes a killer “final girl.” Meanwhile, the script never reveals its entire hand, and by the time you think it’s run out of cards, it sneaks more out of its sleeve.
With an ensemble cast of characters trapped in a dining room, the filmmakers have themselves the perfect setting for suspense. It also knows how silly and absurd it can be at times – an easy, unbreakable formula… err… recipe. It works precisely because it knows what it is and doesn’t try to turn it into something it’s not.
The Menu is a savage commentary on our materialistic consumerist tendencies, but surprisingly it is also a tale of reclaiming passion for who you are and what you do. For a film where hell breaks loose and it winks and jokes about it unapologetically alongside an endless amount of food, it’s a film with heart.
The best kind of food are the ones made with real passion. Simple, rustic, homemade, honest food. But for food – and film – to remain honest and passionate, we must all respectively play our part… or suffer the consequences. Consider me well-fed, and expect me to return for seconds.
This review is from the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures will release The Menu only in theaters on November 18.