In the day’s twilight, a group of obnoxious super-rich types take a boat to a remote island for dinner. This isn’t just any dinner, though. It’s a $1,750 per head dining experience by Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Among the guests are Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), a couple that doesn’t quite fit. After they arrive, they are welcomed by hostess Elsa (Hong Chau), whose every smile and glance forebodes something devious is afoot. Then, when everyone is seated, Chef Slowik appears. With a firm clap and a voice tinged with growing condescension, he announces a progression of courses that bring delight and unease. Unlike the rest of the clueless patrons, Margot can tell something isn’t right. Each course, while immaculately prepared, brings recriminations from the Chef. Then, shockingly and unexpectedly, things turn violent. What does Chef Slowik have planned for everyone? Will they survive until the meal’s final course?
At first, The Menu presents itself as the darkest of dark comedies. It’s a knowing satire of cuisine as art for the entitled, where each dish isn’t consumed so much as it is acknowledged. You don’t enjoy it, you brag about being able to afford it. Then, the movie reveals itself to have the warm, bloody core of a horror movie. All told, the movie is a sublime treat, with a story that is as diabolical as it is bitingly funny. The movie features another show-stopping performance by Fiennes, who makes playing complex characters like Chef Slowik look so easy. He’s aided and abetted by Taylor-Joy’s shimmering, wide-eyed sass, Hoult’s prickly intelligence and Chau’s serpentine cheeriness. The movie is a wild ride on the dark side. It takes no prisoners, and you’ll be glad for it. Highly Recommended.
I’m forgoing the usual and instead jumping directly to the analysis. Spoilers abound.
If I were a film critic completely bereft of artistic insight, I would describe The Menu as Se7en crossed with Pig. Like the former, there’s a genius who has meticulously devised an evil plot that, when fully executed, will allow him to exact revenge on those he despises. Except that in this case, the genius isn’t inspired by classic literature and the seven deadly sins, he’s inspired by culinary expertise. As each course is served, the guests realize that they are part of a diabolical scheme that they won’t survive. It’s as if Chef Robin (Nicolas Cage) went full-on Nic Cage and took out his frustrations on his guests.
This analysis, however, only describes the movie at a very superficial level. It may be accurate, but it only uses comparison to highlight similarities between the films. You may very well enjoy The Menu if you like dark thrillers like Se7en and/or movies about domineering chefs like Pig but that offers little in terms of describing what this movie is about.
At its core, The Menu is an indictment of the corrupt relationship between art and commerce. On the one side is Chef Slowik, who started out cooking burgers and was happy doing it. Then, over time, he was seduced by the money and fame offered by his benefactors and began preparing meals of increasing complexity for outlandish prices. On the commerce side of the equation are the dinner guests, the select few who have the money to spend dining at Chef’s remote island. As the story plays out, we learn how each of the guests represents a different aspect of how money corrupts art in different ways.
First there is the influential food critic Lillian and her editor Ted. She made Chef Slowik’s career with her favorable review, but she also destroyed the livelihoods of other restaurants just the same. Next are incredibly wealthy patrons Richard and Anne, who have eaten at the island several times but cannot remember a thing they’ve eaten. Bryce, Soren and Dave are the money bros, young capitalist frat boys who are only there because their boss funds the operation. The movie star represents the tragic descent of the artist from a creator into a paid clown. He used to make good films, but then began doing mediocre work for a paycheck. Similarly, Slowik’s career has devolved from making simple yet satisfying meals into one whose dishes are, as Margo puts it, primarily an “intellectual exercise.”
Last but not least is Tyler. Unlike the other guests, who are all odious and reek of privilege, his inclusion in the dining party is more nuanced. Tyler has enough money to afford to dine on the island, but he isn’t swimming in wealth like the others. Also, unlike the others, he can identify the ingredients and describe how each course was prepared. Additionally, he actually savors every dish, even the damning “Breadless Bread Plate”. He isn’t dining on the island just to say he dined there, or because he could afford it. He chooses to be there just for the experience of eating Chef Slowik’s food, even with the knowledge that he won’t survive the night. Tyler is one of those people who can annoyingly describe everything about a dish, but couldn’t cook to save his life. He’s a foodie. Or, to borrow from Oscar Wilde, someone who “Knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.”
I initially thought that Chef Slowik was unfair to include Richard’s wife Anne and the actor’s personal assistant Felicity in the meal’s pièce de résistance. However, when Richard’s disgusting behavior with Margot was revealed, as well as Felicity’s embezzlement of the actor’s money, I realized that they were there because they were enablers. If they were able to look the other way for the money and the privilege, they definitely deserve to be s’more’d alongside their partners.
A Recipe…for Horror
At the risk of sounding like the doomed Tyler, I enjoyed The Menu for its subtlety and complexity. Initially, I enjoyed the movie for its darkly comedic elements. The tortillas that have been engraved with evidence of the guests’ wrongdoing. The Breadless Bread Plate, because bread is a dish for the common person, which the Chef denies his guests because they are all obscenely rich. The under-chef’s suicide which everyone thinks is a bit of performance art. Elsa’s quietly forceful demeanor. All of it points to the movie being a send-up of haute cuisine. Then, about midway through, the tone of the movie shifts and it reveals its true nature: it’s a horror movie.
There’s the group of idiotic supporting characters who expect and can’t wait to be killed off. The monster is Chef Slowik, hell-bent on killing everyone as well as his staff and himself at the end of the night. Margot is the standard horror movie final girl, the one who is smarter than everyone else in spite of her upbringing and chosen career. She not only figures out the monster’s plan, but also a way to garner sympathy from him. She pieces together clues from his bedroom and forces him to remember the time when he was happily flipping burgers for a living. Her appeal to the monster’s “happy childhood” works, and he spares her life in the end.
I realize that I dismissed using comparison as an aspect of serious film criticism above. Please consider the following as a recommendation. The Menu reminded me a lot of Ready or Not (2019), where Samara Weaving is unwittingly included in a deadly game played by a lot of loathsome rich people. If you haven’t seen it and you like The Menu, I highly recommend the former.
Sympathy for the Chef
Even though he was eventually revealed as a murderous sociopath, I appreciated how the movie takes the time to explain Chef Slowik’s motivations, instead of going the easy route and making him a one-dimensional murderous cartoon. He started out as a humble fry cook, making simple yet satisfying meals for regular people (cheeseburgers!). Then, with the assistance of wealthy and influential benefactors, he became the master chef he always wanted to be. Unfortunately, the journey transformed him into a hideous caricature of a cook. He sold his soul to become Chef Slowik, a megalomaniacal, controlling, entitled asshole who pimped himself out to the highest bidder, selling “dining experiences” that were neither simple nor satisfying.
In a way, Chef Slowik represents the tragedy of the artist who succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. At first, he was a struggling, “starving” artist. Then, when fame and celebrity arrived, his ego grew exponentially. At some point before the movie begins, Slowik realized how he had betrayed both himself and his art. Maybe his epiphany occurred while watching the actor’s awful movie, Doctor Sunday Morning? (Apologies if I got the title wrong. My internet search failed me.) Disgusted by himself, his benefactors and his patrons, Chef Slowik came up with a plan to exact revenge upon everyone. He would strike a blow for art and the common man by killing everyone who supported his career, as well as himself.
While I like to consider myself to be a creative person, I’d like to think that if I ever became successful as the fictional Chef Slowik, I wouldn’t let it go to my head. And if it does, I promise to bludgeon myself to death with my own laptop.
As a dark comedy, The Menu takes several well-deserved stabs at the wealthy. However, I’m not convinced that the movie is as solidly on the side of the proletariat as other folks have described it. While Chef Slowik’s plan does involve killing his wealthy patrons, it also includes his staff, Margot, and his own mother. Chef Slowik is not an activist–he’s a misanthrope full of self-loathing and anger. He hates everyone as well as himself, and wants everyone to die in flames. By definition, a class struggle requires participants on both sides who are alive and fighting. The Menu is a story of revenge exacted by one man unilaterally, class affiliations be damned.
The Menu doesn’t set the rich against the poor in an epic struggle for survival. Instead, it coldly contrasts the differences between them. The rich are all self-centered and clueless, while Chef Slowik and his crew are all focused and united in their goal. Towards the end of the movie, Chef Slowik asks his guests why they didn’t join forces against him and his staff. The answer is that the rich always only look out for themselves. The service economy workers–Chef Slowik, Elsa, the kitchen crew and Margot, understand and respect each other. Only the working class has solidarity, which is why the rich go down so meekly in the end.
A Bit of Gristle
For a movie that involves rich patrons unknowingly eating their way through a five-course meal that concludes with their own demise, The Menu holds up fairly well to logical scrutiny. Unfortunately, there was one part of the plot that just didn’t work, like a chewy bite of steak. In the third act, Chef Slowik sends Margot to get a drum of graham cracker crumbs from the shed by herself. I assumed he was doing this so that she would be out of harm’s way when he leveled the coup de grace. To my surprise, Margot returns with the drum. For some reason, this angers Elsa, who engages Margot in a fight to the death. This confrontation is just an awkward plot device designed to provide Margot with a potential means of escape: the radio. This doesn’t pan out, mostly because it’s another obvious plot contrivance. Fortunately, Margot also gains insight into Chef Slowik’s past, which she then uses in an appeal to his origins. I realize I’m being a perfectionist here, singling out two contrivances for criticism. I’m confident Chef Slowik would sympathize with me, though.
The Odd Couples
I didn’t pick up on Margot being an escort until Chef Slowik pulled the admission out of her. I thought that maybe she and Tyler were on a blind date, or were another cinematic variation of The Bickersons. Regardless, I enjoyed how the movie maintained a civilized tension between the two, where I wasn’t sure whether they loved or hated each other. Or both.
The Menu has a lot of fun showcasing how dysfunctional couples interact. The older married couple long resigned to each other’s flaws. The critic and her enabling editor. The actor and his irritable assistant. Chef Slowik and the understudy he abused. Chef Slowik and his mother. Tyler and Margot, brought together via a financial transaction. If the movie is making a statement about love, it’s that the love experienced by the rich is just an illusion, a negotiation predicated on money. The participants are in love with privilege, not another person.
The Menu is primarily an acting showcase. Ralph Fiennes relishes his part (sorry) as the stealth apex predator in the room. He’s been a great character actor for so long, he makes parts like this look easy. I can’t think of anyone else who can bring the character’s mix of domineering cordiality work. It’s a treat.
Anya Taylor-Joy is just as good here as she was in Last Night in Soho and The Northman. She easily stood out as the best part of those two overbaked contraptions. Her scenes of verbal fencing with Fiennes and Hoult were exceptional. Like most of the roles she’s played, her supernatural beauty is at the forefront. To her credit, she keeps taking roles in a wide variety of movies that also accentuate her canny intelligence. As much as I’ve enjoyed her career so far, I feel like her signature role is still on the horizon.
Hong Chau is excellent as Elsa, the server you never want to get on the bad side of. Nicholas Hoult has become so good at playing an educated prick, I’m curious if he’ll ever break out of this typecasting (The Favourite, The Great). The days when he played the mutant Beast in the X-Men movies seem so long ago, almost another lifetime.
IMDB tells me that director Mark Mylod also directed episodes of Game of Thrones and The Affair. Given that The Menu is first class work, I hope it leads to more feature film opportunities for him. Peter Deming brings his usual excellence as DP, making everything look by turns beautiful and ominous. Colin Stetson’s score is sublime.