This review was first published in conjunction with The Menu’s premiere at the 2022 Fantastic Fest. It has been updated for the movie’s HBO Max release.
One of the most-discussed movie scenes of 2021 reads like an unplanned prequel to Mark Mylod’s black, bloody comedic thriller The Menu. In Michael Sarnoski’s Pig, chef-turned-backwoods-recluse Rob (Nicolas Cage) gently eviscerates the chef of a ritzy haute cuisine restaurant, who also happens to be one of Rob’s former employees. In Rob’s view, the other chef betrayed himself when he abandoned his dream of owning an intimate, comfortable pub, in favor of serving elaborately deconstructed food to snobs who mostly care about how much it costs. “Every day, you wake up and there’ll be less of you,” Rob tells the chef, who looks devastated — but not like he disagrees. “You live your life for them, and they don’t even see you. You don’t even see yourself.”
The Menu feels like the next step in that story, if the hapless high-end chef had decided to turn Rob’s revelation outward against his clientele instead of inward. The Menu mocks the kind of people who would eat at that restaurant Chef Rob despises, with its “emulsified scallops” and “foraged huckleberry foam, bathed in the smoke from Douglas fir cones.” But it also finds a little humanity in them as well. One of the most intriguing things about the movie is the way the filmmakers find room to skewer every target in sight.
Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Margot, a last-minute date for rich foodie obsessive Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), who’s secured a seating at an exclusive restaurant on a private island, headed by the renowned Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Margot doesn’t care about the kind of food Chef Slowik serves, such as a few artfully spaced blotches of sauce on a plate, billed as a cheeky “breadless bread course.” But Tyler is obsessive about Chef Slowik’s work, and the possibility of earning his attention and interest. They’re an odd couple from the start, with a strange tension between them that suggests secrets waiting to be revealed.
They aren’t the only ones with secrets. The other diners on this particular evening include a smug food critic (Janet McTeer) and her sycophantic editor (Paul Adelstein), a minor movie star (John Leguizamo) and his assistant (Aimee Carrero), a trio of loud tech boors who start the night off by boasting about fraudulently expensing their dinner, and an older couple who feel they might recognize Margot. Then there’s Chef Slowik, who’s planned a dangerous “menu” for the evening, designed to bring everyone’s secrets to light.
How far Chef Slowik is willing to go, and what’s going on with Margot, make up most of the complications in The Menu. Otherwise, it might just play out as a fairly grim and familiar revenge thriller aimed at some easy targets: rich, entitled, rude, self-satisfied people. If there weren’t more going on under the surface, The Menu would risk coming across as a fancy version of one of those teen slashers that’s mostly just about watching symbolically obnoxious, shallow young people getting mown down by a killer.
Instead, Seth Reiss and Will Tracy’s script doles out the revelations with a careful sense of pacing and escalation, keeping a balance of sympathies between victims and mastermind. They clearly don’t expect the audience to entirely throw in with the people paying $1,250 apiece for a minimalist dinner, mostly for bragging rights about the experience. But they don’t leave their victims as ciphers, either. Margot naturally gets center stage, and Taylor-Joy gives her a fierce, brittle “I’m totally over this nonsense” energy that makes her a compelling protagonist. Hoult gives an equally strong performance as a man being forced to come to terms with his own pretensions in a particularly painful way. But each character in turn gets a little stage time, including Chef Slowik’s dedicated assistant, Elsa (Hong Chau, fresh off The Whale, but most memorable as the villain in the 2019 Watchmen series).
And Fiennes himself is a considerable asset, as usual. He directs the action at his restaurant like a cult leader, puts on a warm, benevolent face when it suits the story, then brings a ruthless form of cold psychopathy to the table for other scenes. Trying to guess what’s under his surface is one of the movie’s bigger challenges, and one of its biggest joys, mostly because he’s scripted and performed as a villain with a few sympathetic wrinkles, a man who courts empathy and evokes horror at the same time.
The Menu often reads like an expansive version of a single-set play, where a group of people forced into close proximity gradually crack under pressure and reveal new things about themselves. A lot of what keeps it going isn’t that stagey energy, but the staging itself. Production designer Ethan Tobman was inspired by everything from Luis Buñuel’s devastating 1962 film The Exterminating Angel (another film about smug elites who can’t escape each other) to German expressionist architecture. He and cinematographer Peter Deming give the film a harsh, punishing chilliness that emphasizes both the lack of comfort or warmth in haute cuisine and the state of Chef Slowik’s mind. It’s an appropriately sumptuous and sense-driven film, with something striking to look at in every frame.
The Menu doesn’t always add up, though. There’s a strange unwillingness to commit to the film’s Grand Guignol potential, likely out of a desire to keep the cast around for the final act. There’s a disconnect between Chef Slowik’s hatred of his guests and the level of their comparative crimes, some of which are far more personal and meaningful than others. The film’s contempt for arrogance and entitlement is straightforward and satisfying, but when other motives start driving the story, like Elsa’s jealousy over Margot or Chef Slowik’s rage over not having each of his dishes remembered, the revenge story curdles a bit.
Still, Reiss and Tracy’s willingness to implicate Chef Slowik along with his vain, surface-obsessed victims gives The Menu some startling intrigue. Like the pretentious chef Nicolas Cage calls out in Pig, Slowik engineered his own downfall and his own torment, and The Menu doesn’t let him off the hook by playing out as a straightforward eat-the-rich morality tale. The humor in this movie is mostly subtle (particularly in the hilariously wry course titles that appear on screen), but it is ultimately as much of a comedy as a horror-thriller. There’s some knuckle-biting tension as viewers wait to see how it’ll all play out, but Mylod and the writers also suggest that it’s worth chuckling a little at everyone involved, whether they’re serving up fancy versions of mayhem or just paying through the nose for it.