“Please don’t smoke,” Tyler (Nicolas Hoult) warns Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) in the opening scene of The Menu. “It’ll ruin your palate.” They’re standing on the dock, waiting for the boat that will take them to Hawthorne Island, where they’re two of twelve customers (at a steep $1250 each) who will enjoy a multi-course meal from the famous Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). “Let it be magical,” Tyler insists; he’s a self-proclaimed foodie who snaps pictures of every dish and says things like “He’s not just a chef, he’s a storyteller.” And over the course of the meal, Chef Slowik tells a story, all right.
“Do not eat,” he commands his outrageously wealthy guests. “Taste. Savor.” But there’s a strange energy between him and Margot, whom he immediately clocks as an outsider (“You shouldn’t be here tonight”) and chastises for not touching her plates. “I guess I’m not very hungry,” she shrugs, but it’s not that; she’s cynical about all of this nonsense, and she has secrets of her own besides.
Director Mark Mylod boasts a fairly dire filmography (Ali G Indahouse, The Big White, What’s Your Number?); he’s spent the past decade acquitting himself quite nicely on television, where his credits have included Shameless and Succession. As such, it’s not surprising that the most inspired moments of The Menu are those skewering the rich, who eagerly lap up the “breadless bread plate” and agree that you can catch a faint taste of “longing and regret” in the wine.
Yet sinister undertones creep into the meal, and then things get really strange: Chef introduces his sous-chef Jeremy, who “aspires to greatness, but he’ll never achieve it.” Jeremy agrees, takes out a pistol, and blows his own brains out. The guests are panicked and confused – “Is this real?” “This is just theater, it’s part of the menu” – but Chef is clear. “This is what you’re paying for,” he says, with a knowing grin. “It’s all part of the menu.”
It’s hard to imagine more perfect casting for the role of Chef Slowik than Fiennes – it’s frankly hard to imagine anyone else in it, who can so deftly mix stylish class with outright cruelty. It’s like the character combines his performances in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Schindler’s List. Taylor-Joy is terrific as well; it’s a genuinely compelling character, and it’s impossible to guess where she’s going with it. But she has a long moment in close-up, late in the film, where you’re just watching her think, and it’s exhilarating. The ensemble is solid, though the stand-out is Hong Chau, sharp-elbowed and stone-faced as Elsa, who runs the dining room with an iron fist and a taste for blood.
Mylod’s direction is energetic – it moves at a good clip – and he builds the tension and discomfort well, while managing the rapid flip from class satire to straight-up horror with reasonable grace. The only problem is that it feels like Seth Reiss and Will Tracy’s screenplay makes the flip too early in the picture; it’s at its best before we know exactly what Chef is up to (any explanation for it is bound to disappoint), so letting the dread and uncertainty build longer might have yielded higher rewards. And its last scene is strangely unsatisfying. But for long stretches, The Menu is quite an appetizing dish.
“The Menu” is in theaters Friday.