I walked into The Menu at TIFF 2022 knowing very little about what I would expect. Judging by the trailer and the details online, the movie sounded like it would be right up my alley. It looked to be a thriller that would dive into food culture gone wrong, led by a great cast. Now that I have seen it, The Menu is so much more than it seems on the surface, and was a movie that despite the dark tone and subject, was a blast to watch, and one of the best films out of this year’s festival.
Starting things off on a dock waiting to head to an exclusive restaurant few ever get to experience, The Menu cleverly gives a taste of the cast you will soon see in action. With everyone waiting for a boat, we meet our lead for the film Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), a new addition to the guest list, and the date of Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), a foodie who can best be described as a fanboy of fine dining.
But being an exclusive list, there are all kinds of people joining this night’s dinner, including a washed-up movie star (John Leguizamo), Lillian (Janet McTeer), a food critic who can find fault with anything and her publisher (Paul Adelstein), a group of finance bros (Mark St. Cyr, Arturo Castro, Rob Yang) along with many other gusts that embody the people you expect at an exclusive dining event.
From this introduction, the full assortment of guests is brought to the island where Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) has set up his exclusive restaurant known as Hawthorne’s. It is here we meet the hostess Elsa (Hong Chau) who guides the guests through how the remote island works, how devoted the chefs and staff are, along with how truly secluded everyone is. The grandeur and care that goes into this dining room is clear as the dinner service gets underway, but as the many course meal progresses, things quickly turn dark in ways few could imagine.
The flow and pacing of The Menu is fantastic, and does an amazing job of making the 1 hour 46 minute runtime fly by. The structure of a multiple-course meal gives the film a sense of urgency and finality. Once it is made clear things will go very badly when this dining experience comes to an end, the slow progression works to build a level of tension and sets the stage for all the struggle that is about to unfold.
It was a masterful use of the setting, and gives the movie a sense of purpose and drive that could be lost otherwise. The fact The Menu sticks to the meals as a scene transition, even as things become unhinged, was a great move, and helps raise the stakes with each new course.
“…The Menu is a movie you can’t afford to miss.”
Even with the horror/thriller core, The Menu is also a very funny dark comedy that uses the tense mood to great effect. While the concept is frightening, the script by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy has a dry wit to it that is not afraid to poke fun at the concept, the idea of food culture, and the obsession with wealth.
At the core of the movie is a statement about culture, and how the people being served often neglect who takes the time to make them the many meals they enjoy. Mark Mylod as the director does a fantastic job letting the script and concepts feel natural on the screen, knowing when to break the tension with levity to keep even the dark moments light enough to endure.
The levels of power are constantly at play within The Menu, from the guests that like to flaunt their power and money to the other people in the dining room, to the kitchen staff who work as an army under Chef Slowik. It is at times frightening seeing the near cult like loyalty to the Chef, especially as the brutality and horror of the situation ramps up to a fever pitch in the third act. This is a movie filled to the brim with message and social commentary, with the dark tone shining a light on the inequalities in society, made more clear with the thousands of dollars spent by these guests on a single dinner.
The full cast delivers in all their respective roles, each capturing the archetype perfectly. Ralph Fiennes as Chef Slowik brings a controlled energy to the role, but also sadness that sits at the core of his being. Anya Taylor-Joy is fantastic as the outsider who is invited to be a date, with her disdain for the experience building the more she sees of the meal.
Even with so many great performances, Hong Chau’s Elsa was one of the standouts from The Menu. While a subtle performance, she managed to be both helpful and firm with the guests. Her dry humour and blunt comments help raise the dread the guests feel, but also were some of the funniest moments in the film, responding to the rude comments in ways people in the service industry wish they could.
Everything in The Menu felt perfectly put together, from the cast to the art direction. This is a film that is truly striking to look at, with each course expertly crafted to give the elite dinning experience, even in the absurdist ways they get increasingly more ridiculous as the meal progresses. The set design and cinematography work hand in hand to expertly capture the moments and setting to give the full experience of this dinner from hell.
It is rare that a dark comedy thriller captures my attention this much, but there is something special about The Menu. With a great script, fantastic cast, and a visual style all its own, TIFF was made to show off movies like this. Brimming with ideas, and stunning to look at, The Menu is a movie you can’t afford to miss.