Film Review – The Menu
The Menu (2022) operates as a black comedy involving the rituals of fine dining. In broader terms, it can be seen as an allegory for consumerism, art, and the commodification of basic human necessities. Whether a person has a fancy luxury vehicle or a cheap used car, both are meant to get them from Point A to Point B. Whether they wear designer shoes or flip flops, both are supposed to be worn on their feet. So much emphasis is placed on the “artistry” of food that it takes away from the joy of eating. Have you ever gone to a fancy restaurant and pay a disgusting bill for a square inch of food whose name you can’t even pronounce? Wouldn’t you rather just have a meal that tastes good and makes you full?
That is what director Mark Mylod and writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy are aiming for. Centering around consumers’ obsession to experience the finest food and the creators striving to perfect their abilities, the plot takes an absurdist approach. The practices of both sides are taken to such extreme measures that it becomes a weird and funny dynamic. Patrons are so eager to belong in an exclusive club that they will endure terrible customer service. Workers are so focused on their craft that they disregard the notion that guests may not even like what they make. This is an examination of wealth and privilege, where people are so out of touch with everyday life that they’ve become caricatures without even realizing it.
We see this through the eyes of Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy). Under the invite of her companion Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), Margot travels to a remote island where – along with other guests – get to experience a multi-course dinner prepped by the world-renowned Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). The entire process leading up to the dinner has a weird vibe. Led by one of Slowik’s underlings, Elsa (Hong Chau), the guests learn that all the ingredients are taken from the island and the entire staff lives together in one bunk house. The meal is so exclusive that photographs are forbidden. Before each course, Slowik shares a long and pretentious speech, instructing everyone to not just eat the food, but experience it as well.
It’s best to go into The Menu knowing as little as possible. The writing and direction structure the narrative with plenty of twists and turns. We sense that this is not just about a fancy dinner – something terrible is waiting to be revealed. Things take a darker turn with each subsequent course. Dividing lines are made between those in the kitchen and those seated at the tables. The central tension becomes which side will blink first. Will the guests stand up for themselves, or will they remain complacent and follow Slowik’s orders? Will Slowik and the crew see beyond themselves and their goals of perfection? In the middle of the standoff is Margot, who is the odd person out. She acts as a wedge between the two sides, recognizing and pointing out the good and bad of both.
The cinematography (Peter Deming), editing (Christopher Tellefsen), along with the art direction/set design place the action in the dining hall. The kitchen area is adjacent, creating an open space where both sides can see the other. This set up creates a stage like atmosphere. The tension escalates the more we learn about our central players. The cast is made up of colorful and distinctive personalities, from the narcissistic actor (John Leguizamo), the verbose food critic (Janet McTeer), to the older repeat customers (Reed Birney, Judith Light). All of them are given a chance to shine. Nicholas Hoult plays Tyler as a groveling worshipper of Slowik. Tyler is so concerned with making a good impression that he will capitulate to Slowik’s every order while dismissing Margot’s apprehensions.
Without question, the highlight is the confrontation between Margot and Slowik. The screenplay provides each with excellent dialogue, allowing them to clash with insightful and pitch perfect interactions. Fiennes and Taylor-Joy match one another as opposing forces, using their smarts as their weapons. As usual, Ralph Fiennes is a great villain, molding the character with refinement but with an undercurrent of instability. He makes Slowik unpredictable yet completely believable. With each step he took I thought, “Yes, of course he would go this far.” Anya Taylor-Joy inhabits Margot as a beacon of humanity inside of a mad house. She is an outsider, with enough perspective to see how things are falling apart. Even though Margot didn’t know who Slowik was before she arrived on the island, she might be the only person who truly understands him.
The narrative does not hide where this is going. Slowik and the staff make their intentions known early and often. How the guests react could turn off some viewers. Secrets are made public, mostly in a negative way. These bits will change our view of these people, and it does take a rather large leap of faith to accept it. We start wondering who we want to come out unscathed. They are all guilty of something, some worse than others. How the narrative justifies their fates will dictate our feelings towards it. I’m being intentionally vague because the film relies so much on its surprises.
With that said, The Menu was a blast. The cast bring their A games. Fiennes and Taylor-Joy go toe to toe like a championship boxing match. Half the fun is in seeing everyone commit to the material, regardless of how bizarre things get. The whole piece may not fit cohesively from a distance, but in the moment it doesn’t matter. It would be interesting to rewatch this, knowing what happens, and seeing if it still works. Dare I say, this warrants a second helping?