Ralph Fiennes shines in a darkly comedic thriller about haute cuisine.
This is an advanced review out of the Toronto International Film Festival, where The Menu made its world premiere. It will hit theaters on Nov. 18, 2022.
The Menu is a slow-cooked meal with a murderous kick: a delectable full course with a bloody and comedic twist, several surprises along the way, a delightful cast led by Ralph Fiennes at his best, some gorgeous presentation, and a sweet and explosive dessert that sticks with you long after your bill arrives. It also happens to be a bloody good time.
It’s set in the world of haute cuisine, where rich people go to the most expensive place that deconstructs basic meals into senseless plates just for the sake of it, and the guests don’t appreciate either the food or the staff because they’re just there to show their class and station. We’re talking about the type of restaurant that offers breadless bread plates, or courses consisting of a couple of leaves served on a big rock and covered with sea foam because it represents … something, whatever.
That is the world in which the renowned Chef Slowik (Fiennes) finds himself trapped in. This is a man who genuinely loves what he does – who has loved making food for others for years – but now is forced to cater to rich assholes who don’t give a single crap about the food they’re consuming. He leads the restaurant on the 12-acre Hawthorn Island, a place so exclusive the employees live in bunk beds in a warehouse smaller than a New York apartment. They slaughter, fish, skin, harvest, prepare, and cook every ingredient locally on the island day after day, catering only to 12 people a night, with tickets costing $1250 a head.
For tonight’s distinguished guest list, we meet Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), a devout foodie who worships at the altar of Chef Slowik, recognizes every pretentious term Chef mentions, and uses words like “mouthfeel.” He is accompanied by his new date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who simply does not care about the pretense and the stupid deconstructions, but is here for a good meal. Also arriving at the island is a famous actor in decline (John Leguizamo) and his assistant; restaurant critic Lillian (Janet McTeer), who loves giving pretentious descriptors to food (like “Thalassic”) and her boot-licking magazine editor Ted (Paul Adelstein); a rich couple that considers themselves regulars at the restaurant (Judith Light and Reed Birney); and three tech bros who are objectively the worst. Soon enough, they realize their fancy meal comes with a very big bill, especially when the bodies start dropping.
If you’re thinking this sounds a bit like a Knives Out movie, you’re not wrong. Though not really a whodunit, there is an element of mystery for a good chunk of The Menu. More importantly, writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy relish in sprinkling the film with a healthy serving of social commentary about consumerism and class warfare. Director Mark Mylod (Succession) makes it a point to really close in on how each of the guests treats the staff in order to drive home how awful they are.
Though the cast is all-around great, without a doubt the standouts are the electric Fiennes as Chef and Hong Chau (Watchmen, the upcoming The Whale) as maitre d’ Elsa. Chau plays an almost cartoony supervillain; an elegant, sinister presence that makes you feel warm and welcome while telling you the exact manner your children will die. As for Fiennes, it’s about time someone let the Oscar nominee be the wicked comedic star he was always destined to be, as he brings Chef’s soft-spoken, unblinking perfectionism and threatening stare to life in a way that is unpredictable yet predictably captivating. He exudes authority to the point that even as he lays out what is going to happen, no one dares make a move. This is a meticulous man who plans everything to the smallest detail, even if that detail hides deep pains and frustration.
And – drawing another similarity to Knives Out – The Menu is hilarious. The horror and gore are more aftertastes than prominent dishes, but the thrills and sinister humor bring to mind the wicked fun The Death of Stalin.
If there’s one big negative it’s that, unlike its open kitchen, the script leaves backstories and explanations mostly unexplored. We know what is happening, but not why, let alone how it was planned out. Thankfully, the story picks up steam quickly enough and offers so much eye candy to make you forget about your questions.
Speaking of eye candy, The Menu looks gorgeous. Shot like the fanciest of Netflix food documentaries, and presenting each dish with care, detail, and hilarious on-screen text explaining what’s in it, this is not a movie you should watch on an empty stomach — that, along with the descent into horror, is not unlike the exquisite Hannibal. Likewise, the score brings a level of elegance that elevates this meal to the highest of high ends. The result is a heavy meal that leaves you satisfied, with a big grin on your face, and a desire for seconds.