Watch this movie. Right fucking now.
Of course I’m not going to end the review there — even as a humble amateur film blogger, I hold myself to a higher standard than that. But far more than most other films that cross my desk, The menu leaves me supremely limited with how much I’m at liberty to disclose. It’s such a fascinating and intelligent thriller with so many layers of darkly comic satire that literally every reveal and plot turn is harrowing, shocking, and humorous upon discovery. I have a hard time discussing even the most basic premise of the film, because finding out the whole point of the movie is itself the whole point of the movie, and it’s a deeply compelling journey from start to finish.
With all that said, I must strongly and strongly urge you to close the review immediately and go see the movie right now, knowing as little about it as you possibly can. See it before anyone can spoil anything about it for you.
If that’s not enough to convince you, I understand. But if you choose to continue reading, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The premise begins with Chef Julian Slowik, a world-renowned culinary maestro played by Ralph Fiennes. He’s the executive chef at the exclusive Hawthorne restaurant, staffed by a cadre of religiously devoted cooks under the iron fist of Slowik’s maitre d’ (Elsa, played by Hong Chau). The Hawthorne is located on its own self-contained island, where all the finest ingredients are grown on site for lavish dinners served at a price point of $1,250 per customer.
Let’s meet the diners for this particular evening, shall we?
- Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) is what you might call a “stan” of Slowik, a dedicated foodie who considers Slowik to be an infallible demigod and probably paid $1,250 just to be in his presence.
- Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) is Tyler’s date for the evening, visibly and vocally unimpressed by all the pretentious bougie shit surrounding her.
- Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) is the food critic who first made Slowik famous, and she’s in attendance with her editor (Ted, played by Paul Adelstein).
- George Diaz (John Leguizamo) is an actor long past his prime, keeping his career afloat through sheer force of ego. He’s here with his girlfriend/assistant (Felicity, played by Aimee Carrero), who’s in the process of leaving him.
- Anne and Richard Liebbrandt (respectively played by Judith Light and Reed Birney) are a rich old couple with some unclear connection to Margot.
- Arturo Castro, Rob Yang, and Mark St. Cyr all play a bunch of douchey tech investors who’ve come to Hawthorne for a drunken guys’ night out.
- Rebecca Koon plays an old woman who’s been sitting quietly in the corner since before everyone else showed up.
The kicker is that Slowik isn’t just a genius chef, but a storyteller who makes complex artistic statements through the medium of food and the theatrical flair of presenting each dish. And as the plot unfolds…
Okay, I’m fucking serious here, DO NOT read any further. Just go watch the movie. It’s amazing, it’s brilliant, and you’re going to love it so much more if you don’t know anything more about it. This is your LAST WARNING,
Anyway, the central gimmick is that people die. In fact, they don’t just die, they get surgically dismantled. This whole evening was specifically designed to break down the intended victims on a deep-seated mental and emotional level before they die.
That being said, it’s important to remember that we’re talking about uber-wealthy assholes here. The ones who’ve paid upwards of $1,200 to attend a work of culinary performance art from an eccentric genius. To name just a few examples, the food critic and her editor are the type of intellectual elites who could talk themselves into believing literally anything, the tech bro investors are a bunch of entitled douchebags who won’t let anything get in the way of their good time, Tyler thinks that nothing Slowik does could possibly be errant or immoral, and so on.
The point being that everyone in attendance is well-practiced at utilizing their powers of ignorance and denial. And this evening is all about pushing those powers well past their breaking point. It’s about finding the singular act of violence so bloody and harmful and shocking that it can’t be brushed off as mere stagecraft. More importantly, there’s the question of who has to be hurt and how badly before these narcissists start to give a shit. And even when they give a shit, what are these assholes willing and able to do to protect each other or themselves when their money can’t save them and there’s nobody around to do the dirty work for them? How many of them would rather die than feel any amount of pain?
Furthermore, we can’t forget that Slowik is an artist first and foremost. This is a man whose painstaking talent goes into meticulously crafting beautiful works of art, all destined to literally turn to shit within the stomachs of the audience. So who is the audience and what are they getting out of this? Of all the millionaires passing through Slowik’s restaurant and partaking of his food, how many truly enjoy eating his food? Do any of them even remember the food they ate or the artistic statement behind the evening? How many customers are here only for the status, the bragging rights, the knowledge that they could afford this massively expensive meal worth more than a month’s rent for most people?
However, there is one important wrinkle: Margot.
See, it goes without saying that Slowik is the kind of artist who’s got his presentation planned out down to the tiniest detail. Then Tyler went and threw a wrench into those plans when his first date backed out for unknown reasons and he brought along Margot instead. She’s an unknown factor, and that changes everything. Perhaps more importantly, because Slowik is such an uptight perfectionist making a finely-crafted artistic statement, it stands to reason that he’s bound by certain rules.
With all of that in mind, a few questions.
- Who is Margot, what does she want, and what can she do?
- What is the grand purpose of Slowik’s magnum opus?
- As the one factor that Slowik didn’t plan for, how could Margot fit into and/or subvert that grand purpose?
- Can Margot (or anyone else) figure out the rules that Slowik is working with, and if so, can they exploit those rules? Are they somehow incapable of doing so, and if they are, then why?
Every single character in the cast — including and especially Slowik himself — has to find an answer to each and every one of those questions, because their lives quite literally depend on it.
Ralph Fiennes is of course such an impeccable actor who’s already acquitted himself in such a wide variety of roles, it’s a given that his work here with such a compelling character is some next-level shit. The other big highlight is Anya Taylor-Joy, here delivering a dynamic performance with the gusto and tenacity to match Fiennes pound for pound. Ditto for Hong Chau, who plays Elsa with such impenetrable dry wit that she effortlessly drew me into the mystery even as I knew there could be nothing good ahead.
Everyone else in the cast — most especially Nicholas Hoult and John Leguizamo — has fun chewing up the scenery as self-absorbed parodies of social media influencers and jet-setting socialites and so on and so forth. But most importantly — and what’s frankly most astonishing of all — is that pretty much everyone in the supporting cast perfectly rides a razor-thin line atop which they’re only just shallow enough. The characters are all broad enough that the film makes its satirical point and we can derive enjoyment from their suffering, but they’re just nuanced enough that we can recognize them as human and thus their impending deaths carry a certain weight.
The film was written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, both of whom also exec-produce. I was surprised to hear that this is their feature debut, but significantly less surprised that they had honed their venomous satirical wit through many years writing for The Onion. Director Mark Mylod also has very little feature experience, but I’m sure his time helming episodes of “Succession” and “Game of Thrones” paid dividends here. And of course we can’t forget Adam McKay, here producing through his Hyperobject Industries shingle. While of course the film benefits from McKay’s explicitly anti-capitalist bent, I’m glad he handed the reins to a director who didn’t actively hate his own audience.
At this point, I feel compelled to close out my blog entry for fear that I’ve already said too much. The menu is diabolically intelligent in a way that perfectly balances paralyzing terror with witty comedy through the entire runtime. It’s a devastating takedown of the phonies who use culture as a means to make themselves look more refined, to the point where the mere act of enjoying a thing isn’t even an afterthought. The cast is tremendous, the direction inspired, and the script itself a work of art.
I seriously can’t believe you’re still reading this. What the hell are you waiting for? SEE THIS MOVIE.