Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures releases the film in theaters on Friday, November 18.
What kind of movie is this?
Asking yourself that question can be one of the most exciting experiences in moviegoing. It happens a number of times during Mark Mylod’s “The Menu,” a movie that combines genres in the cinematic equivalent of fusion cuisine: it’s a satire, then a thriller, and ultimately a horror movie. Seth Reiss and Will Tracy’s script landed on the 2019 Black List, and it’s easy to see why: with its trapped-diners premise and the evisceration of those with power, it’s “The Exterminating Angel” for the franchise era.
Deep-pocketed foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) takes new girlfriend Margot (Anya-Taylor Joy) on a trip to Hawthorne, an ultra-exclusive restaurant on a private island. It’s a foreboding place. Dead trees killed by saltwater on the eroding beach have their gnarled trunks shoot up through the sand. The culinary staff at the restaurant sleep on site in barracks-like living quarters, rows of cots lined up next to each other: after all, they have to rise early to harvest, fish, or slaughter that day’s future meals. Their personal lives and identities are subsumed into a kind of kitchen cult and the restaurant itself is designed with the modernism-meets-minimalism effect of the house in “Parasite.” All of this is presented as selling points to the 12 guests invited for this one very special meal.
Strangers who take a boat to an island where they’ll soon be bonded in an experiment with terror is an old trope, from Agatha Christie to William Castle, but “The Menu” has fun with its slow burn. The food-obsessed Tyler reveres Ralph Fiennes’ Chef Slowik, who rules this island like Jim Jones in a kitchen apron. The groveling Tyler will pay any price, including his own humiliation, to prove his fealty to the culinary arts. Hoult is fearless when it comes to being unappealing (including the vain prigs he’s played in “The Favourite” and “The Great”). As a self-flagellating doofus who delights in awkward foodie lingo like “mouthfeel,” he’s a potent parody of a culture that’s turned “bespoke” into a fetish.
With so many characters, each needs one or two traits to stick out and will further express themselves in the growing crisis. There’s the food critic (Janet McTeer) who purrs with glee when Chef Slowik serves a breadless bread plate, with just the dipping sauces — “Fiendish!” she declares. John Leguizamo is a movie star prepping for a reality show on food; Reed Birney is a wealthy regular who’s been cheating on his wife (Judith Light); and there’s three banking bros who are there because it’s expensive and exclusive.
By the time each character receives personalized tortillas embossed with something unsavory from their past, you know judgment will be served before dessert. “Mulholland Drive” cinematographer Peter Deming’s camera floats among the diners, unifying them as a passive collective: As the portents of doom mount, why don’t they fight back more than they do?
Fiennes’ chef speaks softly and slowly, with the unblinking inner calm of someone who knows how it will play out, allowed no room for error, and already accepted the consequences. Less clear is how he got his kitchen staff to embrace his mission, but “The Menu” chooses to accept it as a given. This is a thriller, not a character study.
The only variable Chef Slowik didn’t account for is Taylor-Joy’s Margot, who we learn was not intended to be Tyler’s original date. Taylor-Joy delivers her most arresting performance yet as the film’s only multi-dimensional character. She sees through Tyler’s nonsense and quietly rebels against the theater of food from the start. And she projects an intelligence, whether it’s staring down Tyler in disbelief or calling out the chef for his self-righteous egotism, as if she’s seeing the underlying code of the Matrix. Much of this movie is Taylor-Joy looking at it all in disbelief.
For “The Menu” to say more, it would need richer, more fully developed characters beyond Margot. You want to learn more about why Chef Slowik allowed grievances to dominate his life, but it’s too thinly sliced to make any kind of indictment against our rising vendetta culture that’s become an economy in its own right. Yet “The Menu” does do one thing exceptionally well: It holds your attention and makes you think for a time that any outcome is possible. That alone is something to salivate over.
“The Menu” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released by Searchlight Pictures on Friday, November 18.