Like a lot of modern horror mysteries, the premise of The Menu could have conceivably been turned into a miniseries for streaming rather than a 106-minute motion picture. However, it’s a good thing writers Will Tracy and Seth Reiss had a more focused vision in mind rather than pitching their fun idea as 8 episodes of painfully elongated filler.
A satire on the different nuanced sects of pretentiousness in society, The Menu is about an artist who gets to a certain level of artistry and power that he grows to resent and hate those who’ve loved and enabled him all these years, thus leading to his own disenchantment and self-hate. And we get to see, with that talent and power, what he does once his wrath has reached the highest level possible.
Ralph Fiennes plays the greatest chef in the world, Julian Slowik, who manages a self-sustaining island on which his exclusive, $1,250-per-meal restaurant inhabits. The Hawthorn accommodates only 12 dinner guests per night, who must take a small ferry from the mainland, which then picks them up several hours later. So basically, they’re trapped on this island. You might be able to see where this is going.
Among the crowd are a snobby restaurant critic, a has-been actor, a trio of corrupt businessmen, and an old rich married couple whose regular outings at Hawthorn find little room for actual enjoyment of the food. Considering the argument from allegory, the thesis may just sink with the wildly unrealistic archetypes that riddle the film. But this is a movie that thrives on extremes, so we press on regardless.
There’s also Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), a superfan of Slowik’s who obsessively fawns over his conceptual courses, such as the controversial “breadless bread plate” and a staged suicide immediately before serving bone marrow.
Something strange is going on at Hawthorn and slowly the guests (sans Tyler) are starting to get worried. You see, Slowik has tailored each and every course for each and every guest. However, a wrench is thrown in his master plan with the arrival of Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who accompanies Tyler in place of his ex-girlfriend who he recently broke up with. Unlike the others, Margot is unimpressed. And since Slowik is aiming to humble his self-indulgent patrons, her lack of unpretentiousness frustrates the chef.
To make a not-so-crude comparison to the likes of John Doe in Se7en or John Kramer in Saw, Julian Slowik is a zealous extremist hoping to carry out his wrath on these individuals who represent his ruin. He sees food as a humble reminder of our existence and hopes to prove to his batch of customers why they’re underserving of it. “You will eat less than you desire and more than you deserve,” says Slowik’s maître d’hôtel (Hong Chau) after one patron complains about the breadless bread plate.
In the best way possible, The Menu is reminiscent of other films that try the audience, not by challenging them intellectually but by pushing them to their absolute limit. With one of the more obvious influences being from Midsommar, but with a more sentimental subtext, the film yearns to make us uncomfortable and uneasy.
The one aspect in which The Menu separates itself from the pack is its persistent dichotomy between unsettling macabre and genuine hilarity. In no small part because of the talented cast who seems to be enjoying themselves as well — especially Fiennes, who’s perfectly comfortable fluctuating between Hitchcockian sinister and downright hilarious — the would-be inconsistency only elevates the film further. Rather than letting the cacophonous tones yank us back and forth, director Mark Mylod controls these elements and uses them to defy our emotional response to everything that’s happening on screen.
Poetic moments and payoffs are scattered throughout the movie so that we’re able to remain emotionally invested and in full submission of the filmmaker. Despite frequently telegraphing his next moves, Mylod directs a fantastically intriguing picture and manages the discordant tones exceptionally well to ensure that The Menu is both genuinely funny and the darkest of comedies.