‘The Menu’ Skewers Class Politics
Let’s get this out of the way quickly: The Menu is not—I repeat, not—a movie about cannibalism. I say this not to spoil potential viewers but to reassure, since it’s the first question almost anyone who’s aware of the film has asked me. Just what is going on in Mark Mylod’s pitch-black comedy about a celebrity chef presiding over a very special meal for the wealthy and famous? Something sinister, yes, with an “eat the rich” mentality—but Julian Slowik (played by Ralph Fiennes) is not turning his diners into food, nor is he feeding them other diners.
Even though oligarchs don’t become hamburgers, The Menu is not the subtlest of satires. The world of haute cuisine is filled with pretentious know-it-alls and simpering hangers-on, and this film is overflowing with both. An ensemble of affluent buffoons gather at an exclusive island restaurant, where Chef Slowik is promising to serve the meal of a lifetime. The movie’s tone is immediately acidic, and Fiennes’s performance is hilariously homicidal, so viewers know pretty quickly that the cook has something nasty planned. But the film’s most trenchant insights come at Slowik’s expense, as he reckons with the moral limitations of his mysterious crusade.
Mylod is one of the chief directors on Succession, and he brings that show’s precise visual sharpness to this film, which was written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy. The story is set almost entirely at Chef Slowik’s restaurant getaway, Hawthorne, which serves only a handful of customers, all arriving by chartered boat, each night. Among them are Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), a mega-fan who can recite Slowik’s gastronomic feats down to every liver gel and truffle foam, and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), his date, who seems far less enthused about sucking deconstructed entrées from crystal tubes.
Every baffling fancy-restaurant trend is on display at Hawthorne, and each course seems designed to be two steps ahead of the preening guests. Among the crowd are a washed-up movie star (John Leguizamo), a scathing critic (Janet McTeer), and a set of obnoxious finance bros. Tyler sticks out as a genuine admirer of Slowik, but his apparently deep knowledge belies the fact that he is something of a grating dilettante. Mylod stacks the deck against our goodwill for the diners—they’re like loud, horny teenagers barging into an abandoned cabin in a Friday the 13th movie, practically begging to be the victims of a deranged slasher.
So when Slowik begins to gradually unfurl his grander design, an unsettling thrill shoots through the macabre intensity of it all. The dishes start to feel personally pointed, as though the chef is somehow aware of the guests’ darkest secrets; the remote exclusivity of Hawthorne’s island location becomes more and more ominous; and Slowik’s imperious maître d’, Elsa (Hong Chau), quietly but firmly stops anyone from leaving the room lest they miss any of the endless courses. The movie is a Twilight Zone episode spun to feature length, with a hit of Luis Buñuel’s surrealist classic The Exterminating Angel—a 1962 film about rich guests who find themselves unable to exit their sumptuous dinner party.
The Menu is not quite as artful: It delivers its jokes as a series of hammer blows, making sure to villainize the assembled diners beyond any hope of redemption. Mordant presentation of the ultra-wealthy has been a recurring theme in cinema this year. Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness torments billionaires on a cruise ship, and Rian Johnson’s upcoming Glass Onion takes aim at the foolishness of tech CEOs. The Menu is unique, because it casts Slowik as both hero and villain. He’s not wrong to simmer with hatred for his elitist customers, but he’s also seething at the fact that he has, in fact, become one of them, propped up by the very system they created.
That’s where Margot comes in. The Menu’s one actually relatable figure, she’s played with flinty confidence by Taylor-Joy (who is nearly incapable of being uninteresting on-screen). A reluctant interloper dragged along by Tyler, Margot gets to the bottom of Slowik’s plans and starts flitting between sides, balancing the righteous purity of his campaign against the extreme cruelty of his specific tactics. She calls out his hypocrisy while exploring the ambiguous ethics of “eating the rich,” even metaphorically. Her presence gives The Menu a surprisingly conservative streak, but that, in turn, gives the story some grist, and a dilemma for the audience to ponder on the way out—more food for thought than your average glossy fall thriller tends to offer.