Thanksgiving may easily be a foodie’s favorite day of the year. An authentic microcosm of culture, history, personal sentiments, protein, and varying side dishes, all laid out on a table with others sharing in the moment. The where, when, and who factors in completing the experience, solidifying its promise as a lasting memory. Such is food, and its power to unite. The reverse is often true, with its less-frequent determination to absolve relationships, expose secrets, and even destroy one’s credibility. This sets the sublime unpredictability of The Menu, a suspense thriller reveling in its accurate, if not also a sobering depiction of haute cuisine. Where food is not to be conversed over, explored, and only then, eventually, consumed.
The level of exclusivity alone is a talking point. Participants pay $1200 a pop for an eight-course tasting stroll from the secluded Hawthorne Island. Each course builds in intensity and oblique gruesomeness, containing ingredients primarily sourced from relative proximity, and its diverse microclimates. And the individuals are all relevant in their notch on the ladder of classism. The staunchest of them all is the decorated house chef, Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), to many an ethereal presence overlooking each menu item like it was an edible museum installation, with army-like precision and steadfast ferocity. Between Garten and Ramsey, he’d be dead center, encouraging his diners to “taste,” to “savor.” To embrace the moment, and certainly not invade his thought process. His second-in-command Elsa (a rebellious Hong Chau) works overtime to keep the peace among staffers, resting in military barracks before lengthy workdays, acquiring and prepping ingredients for the waiting, egotistical players to imbibe.
Heading this eager pack are Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult). They only just started dating, and she’s still getting to know his unique sphere. And that does include both his insecurity, and his inner foodie delights, with a tailored, obsessive need to impress at every turn. Margot willingly follows him to Hawthorne in this test of patience, catching on quickly to how out of place she is with her new compatriots. For one, she is filling the void of Tyler’s last girlfriend, with whom he made the reservation. Julian is quick to point this out, labeling her as an outsider in their sphere. In return, she doesn’t recognize the appeal of this movement, looking clear through the apparent illusion, and searching for her best escape route. That is before the tension of each plate consumes her.
Mylod (best known for helming episodes of Succession), with co-writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy (former staffers from The Onion), keeps a tight grip on that coil of suspense like one would a stress ball. And that much is apt, it’s a mass of foam absorbing agitation and anxiety from all directions. There still lies the space to undercut that tortuous, oft-visceral energy with a spot of good-natured ribbing. Endless holes are poked at the power of food service, the workings of that industry, and its link to the opulent. Far from any Parasite-level profundity, it does accomplish its mission, unhinged and unserious. And close in step with any modern macabre horror, particularly with lighting and camera flow. Both appear quite graceful in DP Peter Deming’s (The New Mutants) eyes.
There are many opportunities to cut loose and laugh, as much as cower in fright. Mylod succeeds so breezily in blending both, never falling deep into a void of utter dread, he relies welcomely on the insistence that it’s all dinner theater. Nay, with a smidgeon of fourth wall destruction. Taylor-Joy is a true queen of that arena, her quizzical sharpness to the material, posing quite the cat-and-mouse play to Fiennes’ wounded genius shtick. His embittered, controversy-prone antihero motif is never lost on the viewer, leaving behind the mystique akin to a general or psychiatrist. He’s nothing without expecting proper decorum from both staff and guests, doing so with restraint while digging into their buried personal identities.
How they all connect is its own specific veil for Margot to tug away at, observing peculiar traits among her fellow diners. Sitting nearby, we find a washed-up actor (an ingenious John Leguizamo) and his assistant (Aimee Carrero). A notable food critic (Janet McTeer) and her editor (Paul Adelstein). A trio of bullheaded tech execs (Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr, Rob Yang), and a pair of socialites (Reed Birney and a striking Judith Light) who’ve ridden the Hawthorne coaster times before, but never this dramatically. Their separate backgrounds are namely one source of cache; their sworn allegiance to Julian is another. And they fully represent it, to brainwashed extremes.
So, there is a fabricated treacle amid the decorated cook’s motive, revealed to his crowd with a molasses pace. One of this year’s highly finite slow burns to best grace the screen, not immediately recognizing the sensation of pain. Julian is a pure face of false confidence with one hand on the griddle, unflinching while his dishes express those commonalities in the sinking ship of his career. And all the while unpredictability takes command among the revelers, free of nonsense, heavy with contempt.
At no time does this looseness falter the multi-course cadence; the taste buds stay engaged, if not also quivering fearfully for the meal’s next perceptive flourish. And accepting whatever comeuppance emerges once the bill arrives. The moment when culinary satisfaction reaches its end. I felt full by then, sated by The Menu. Its epilogue stands as a final blow of elitist humility, a cherry on top for the year’s most messed up screen venture. Like these diners would ever acknowledge the idea. Mylod makes up that ground with minimal warmup, his dissection of modern snobbery and molecular gastronomy playing like pure biology at work. Provided the physical sciences allowed for unbridled wit, honest surprise (sans shock), and a slant for light gruesomeness, boosted to no end by a flawless Taylor-Joy. After witnessing this gourmand’s folly, there may now be an extra seat for all three at the table. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
The Menu opens in theaters November 18; rated R for strong/disturbing violent content, language throughout and some sexual references; 107 minutes.