This review originally ran as part of Paste’s 2022 SXSW coverage.
Early in The Menu, director Mark Mylod’s beautiful, intricate dark comedy set amid the trappings of exclusive restaurant culture, a character explains that, for him, art doesn’t matter. Films aren’t important. Neither are books, paintings or music. Food, he tells us, is the purest and best art form, because a great chef’s medium is “the raw materials of life and death.”
Like just about every piece of dialogue in the film, written with fiendish joy by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, it’s both funny in the moment and unexpectedly profound in the larger context of The Menu’s dark game. Yes, the enigmatic master chef at the heart of film is playing with the raw materials of life and death on his plates—seafood, fungi, roast chicken, flash-frozen microgreens and plenty of artful foam—but the menu he’s developed, and the film that depicts it, is also dealing with the raw materials of human human life and death. The list of ingredients is long, the techniques complex, but everything is whipped like egg whites into something so light and airy you barely notice the bitterness until it smacks you in the teeth. The characters are right to be impressed, because The Menu’s delicate dance of violence, comedy and artful staging combine to make it one of the most satisfying films of the year.
The restaurant at the heart of this heady recipe is Hawthorne, a fabulously expensive establishment run by the demanding, precise Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes, sharp as carbon steel) from a private island where all the ingredients are local and a seat at the table will set you back more than a grand. Hawthorne serves just 12 diners per service, and on the night we journey to the island, they include everyone from a couple of regulars (Judith Light, Reed Birney) to a renowned and famously hard-to-please food critic (Janet McTeer) to a fading movie star trying to build a second career as a travel show host (John Leguizamo).
The film is interested in each of these personalities to varying degrees, but turns particularly sharp focus on Margo (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), a mismatched couple with very different views of what they’re about to experience. For Tyler, it’s worth every penny—a chance to bask in the glow of culinary genius. For Margo, it’s another date at another pricey restaurant where Tyler will take a thousand pictures on his phone and see how the boots of the chef taste. But of course, none of them know what’s coming, even as they wait with bated breath to see what kind of narrative Slowik and his team, including an ice-cold hostess played with delightful intensity by Hong Chau, will unfold for them on this particular night.
The Menu is certainly far from the first movie to wield the direct parallels between cooking a great meal and making a great film, but it’s still striking to see just how well Mylod carries the metaphor forward visually. Like Slowik, he blends the natural and the artificial, showing us the clean lines and rigid surfaces of Hawthorne against the backdrop of a constantly shifting sea, and a woodland rich with life that seems to fade in the coldness of the restaurant’s glass and concrete palace. It’s here that the other key ingredients, the incredible cast, begin to assert their own flavor notes, giving the film’s first act the undertone of a whodunit. Each one of them has a secret, even if they don’t know it, and as the film pushes past its early tastings and into the main course, Mylod expertly unfurls those secrets with the artful pacing of a good mystery—or a good tasting menu.
The environment, the complexity and the sheer star power at work in The Menu all suggest a richness, brought forward by Fiennes’ simmering, tightly composed sense of doom and Chau’s icy depth. That richness is cut by the acid of the humor, which arises from Taylor-Joy’s razor-sharp tongue and Hoult’s oblivious foodie-bro pontificating. Then there are the notes of bitterness coming through in Leguizamo’s fallen star and a trio of finance jerks (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr) who show up mostly just so they can say they showed up. They converge to form the film’s singular flavor, but even among a stellar ensemble, Fiennes, Taylor-Joy and Chau stand out: Slowik is a role Fiennes was born for, Chau deserves tremendous attention for the restrained fury she applies to every second of the film and Taylor-Joy emanates endless star power as the arc of her character traces from comedy to thriller to all-out horror. It’s a trio of masterful performances wrapped up in a film full of delicate, delicious work.
But of course, the trick is that The Menu itself is anything but delicate. Yes, all the ingredients are treated with care, and the film’s early developments are placed with the precision of a single sprig of chives tweezed onto a plating, but the film’s dark secret is that it’s not here to be subtle. Its true strength is not in tweezers, or carefully engineered molecular gastronomy, but in the furious swipes of a cleaver coming at your head. The complexity, both tonally and visually, is there to tease out the film’s black genre heart, and it’s that heart that makes The Menu a delicious and deeply filling experience that will make you beg for a second helping.
Director: Mark Mylod
Writer: Seth Reiss, Will Tracy
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, Ralph Fiennes, Hong Chau, Janet McTeer, Judith Light, John Leguizamo
Release Date: November 18, 2022
Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.