An amuse-bouche of mystery and rising tension bursts into shocking flavor in the early courses with the introduction of a familiar but always startling red claret, finishing with redolent notes ranging from The Wicker Man to Ratatouille (the movie, not the “peasant dish” after which it was named), which combine in the climactic denouement to complete a caustic and unpredictable but always satisfying cinematic experience.
As you can probably tell from my rather half-hearted attempt to emulate the refined style of a pretentious food cricket, I would not be likely to find myself at Hawthorne, the hyper-exclusive island restaurant that serves as the setting for the acerbically funny satirical thriller The Menu. Neither is our protagonist, “Margot” (Anya Taylor-Joy), the usual clientele of the establishment, which skews more toward the likes of mansplaining wannabe chef Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), her date to the highly anticipated dining experience.
The other guests include a snooty, hard to please food critic and her editor/sycophant, a wealthy elderly couple, a trio of twenty-something business bros, and a past-his-prime action movie star with his personal assistant. John Leguizamo reportedly based his performance as the action star on his real-life experience working with Steven Seagal, and he inevitably comes off as much more sympathetic and likable than the genuine article. Not to say any of this main cast is particularly sympathetic or likable. Perish the thought!
Far more charming is the head chef, Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), though it is the icy, sadistically intelligent charm of a Hannibal Lecter. The two do indeed share both a refined palate and a strong distaste for the vulgar rich who can afford fine food but cannot appreciate it. I don’t mean to suggest by comparison that cannibalism is on this particular menu, though it would certainly be a shame to divulge too much one way or the other about just where the narrative goes.
Like Slowik and his quietly terrifying maitre d’ Elsa (Hong Chau), The Menu is too smart to be so simple as a literal “eat the rich” story, nor is it quite so simple as a “rich people bad, poor people good” dichotomy. Instead, from what we do get to know about each character in this economical, single-location film, we see how the exploitative system of capitalism affects both the “givers” and the “takers,” to use the parlance of Chef Slowik.
Like Hawthorne itself, and its titular menu, everything in the movie has been orchestrated to giddy perfection. The script is tightly crafted and full of crackling dialogue, the production design and cinematography are suitably sumptuous, and the pacing never sags. The tone never seems to be striving for realism, exactly, but a more heightened, almost dreamlike state, with the dizzying inexorability of a journey through hell. Despite the darkness of it all (and this is a Ruthless movie, to be sure), it never ceases to be buoyantly exciting and entertaining.
With her obvious natural intelligence and wit, Taylor-Joy makes for an ideal Final Girl as the one who doesn’t fit in with Chef Slowik’s meticulous plan, and who therefore has a distinct advantage. If Chef is always one step ahead, the resourcefulness and insight she shows makes “Margot” (they don’t even know her real name!) the only one capable of at least playing on his level.
In my new tongue-in-cheek role as cinematic sommelier, might I suggest pairing this with the also very fresh Glass Onion? The class satire and edge-of-your-seat intrigue would complement one another quite nicely, I think. Bone your appetite, or whatever those British frogs say.