'The Menu': A Sharply Funny and Deftly Cut Satire
The average salary of a sous-chef at a Michelin Star restaurant in the United States is slightly under $57,000, highlighting a stark contrast between the cooks in the kitchen and the wealthy guests paying $1,250 per head to dine at Hawthorne in The Menu. One of these guests is self-proclaimed foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), who we meet as he scolds his last-minute replacement date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) for smoking a cigarette and ruining her taste buds before their expensive meal. Tyler, Margot, and 10 other guests await a boat to take them to celebrity chef Julian Slowik’s (Ralph Fiennes) exclusive restaurant situated on a private island. Except for Margot, everyone—the wealthy members of the group financing the experience, a washed up actor, restaurant regulars, and the food critics who put Hawthorne on the map—seems to believe they belong. This does not go unnoticed by Slowik.
The biggest draw of The Menu is its clever script. Seth Reiss and Will Tracy pen the biting class commentary with a striking familiarity. While the wealthy guests never become fully realized characters, the clarity of the script cuts through the potential for them to become caricatures, instead using their overexaggerated stereotypes to skewer the fine dining industry and its patrons. Each dish is introduced with a pompous speech from Slowik (and accompanied by a helpful title card for the viewer!), which every guest besides Margot devours each time. In their minds, the false grandeur of the menu confirms their status, and the group’s forced understanding of the dishes confirms their belonging. For Tyler, there’s no greater pleasure than indulging in his own inflated ego. When Slowik serves a “Breadless Bread Plate,” his financiers continually ask for bread despite refusal from Slowik’s second-hand, Elsa (played by a hilariously dry Hong Chau), who ominously warns, “You will eat less than you desire, but more than you deserve.” Their earlier appreciation for Slowik’s brilliance dissipates as soon as their status fails to serve them. As the dishes become more eccentric (each guest is given a tortilla laser etched with their past sins) and disturbing (sous-chef Jeremy kills himself for “The Mess”), it becomes apparent that Slowik does not intend for anyone—guest or staff—to make it off the island alive.
The Menu is billed as both horror and comedy, yet the latter is more present and effective. Although tense, The Menu never really scares. With his directorial work on both Succession and Shameless, Director Mark Mylod is well-versed in darkly funny class commentaries, and it is evidently where he is most comfortable. That isn’t to say that Mylod fails to craft thrilling scenes. Aided by Colin Stetson’s (Hereditary) haunting score, he is able to crank up the anxiety when he needs to, effectively developing a constantly foreboding atmosphere. The pace is unrelenting (a credit to both the screenwriting and directing), as each new course acts as a countdown on a time-bomb ready to blow. It is undeniable, however, that The Menu shines in its grim humor and sharp commentary. In a scene where Slowik forces Tyler to cook, it is impossible not to revel in Tyler’s failure to produce what he seems to know everything about and cackle at the title card aptly naming the dish “Tyler’s Bullshit.” Though he claims to be a foodie, Tyler's only skill seems to be consumption.
For every death and brutal kill, the real horror takes place in the film’s exploration of exploitation. While a literal “eat the rich” mentality provides its momentum, The Menu’s true discomfort sits in the systems of exploitation from which escape seems impossible. When Margot is revealed to be a sex worker hired by Tyler to act as his date, Slowik in turn reveals that Tyler knew that everyone would die—willing to condemn both himself and his date-by-hire for the sake of the culinary experience. The wealthy guests abuse the power at their disposal, with little regard for who it affects or from whom the benefits come. Tyler consumes and analyzes without any real consideration towards the people cooking for him; the financiers expect Hawthorne’s staff to bend to their status; and the critics search endlessly for a critique of the meal, ignorant of the consequences of their comments. Equally willing to die are Slowik’s sous-chefs, who, like Jeremy, display unwavering commitment to Slowik and his vision—evidently stuck in the vicious cycle of their profession.
The Menu draws a stark contrast between the patrons who thoughtlessly take and the people who will do anything to serve them. While it's not perfect, particularly in the aforementioned failure to develop compelling characters (besides Margot and Slowik), it is hard not to gleefully hope that The Menu offers its worst to everyone lucky enough to dine at Hawthorne.
Alex Johnson is a sophomore in the College studying Government and Religion, Ethics, and World Affairs.