Every once in a while a movie comes around that makes me go “shit, didn’t think that was a story I could’ve imagined.” Mark Mylod’s The Menu is one of those weird but delightful ones that I had the fortune of watching early. After spending years being shopped around on the blacklist, The Menu is a zany thriller with grabbing performances that can best be experienced with a large group.
The Menu stars Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult as they embark on feasting the world-famous Chef Slowik’s (Ralph Fiennes) exclusive menu on a tropical island, away from the safety and comfort of the larger world. Joining them are a host of interesting characters that you’d recognize archetypes of from any decent murder mystery, but this isn’t one of them. No, this is much, much different. After a few awkward meals, the tension rises and it becomes clear that many, if not all, of them, are not going to make it out alive and well. It turns out Slowik has a plan for all of them, which mostly includes a few delicacies revealing their flaws in them before their planned deaths. Each serving of a new course reveals something new about them, either implicitly or explicitly, before turning into a madhouse.
I went into the movie blind, having glimpsed at only the posters and maybe 15 seconds of a TV spot. I was not ready for a “horror” film. And The Menu is hard to categorize since it’s equal parts thriller and black comedy with hints of satirical comedy sprinkled on top as icing.
Chef Slowik is, as most movies have shown us, driven by a massive ego and a sense of mysticism to his activities that you can’t help but be glued to the next time he opens his mouth. Fiennes is, as always, magnetic. He commands the attention of his customers and staff in equal measure, and his unpredictable nature only adds to the aura surrounding him. Slowik has prepared a very special, customized menu for his customers for this particular evening, and as the night goes on his love for his craft as well as disdain for this cast of characters goes beyond what people would call “creative passion.”
Beyond Fiennes, what a year has it been for Anya Taylor-Joy?! From The Northman to Amsterdam to now The Menu, the young actor continues to prove talented with a strong screen presence. Perhaps similar to her roles in those, she seems to look much younger than her role lets on, but it works here for adding another wall between her and other visitors at Chef Slowik’s restaurant. Her arrival at the island is the only thing that wasn’t accounted for by Slowik, and that makes for some great back-and-forths between his eccentric attitude and her carelessness about his art.
The rest of the cast has enough dissimilarities for all of them to be unforgettable. Pretty much every character here gets a few moments to shine, leaving a lasting impression. Janet McTeer, Paul Adelstein, John Leguizamo, Arturo Castro are the standouts amongst those, and the limited interactions they have along with their own commentary on the situation provide points of view aplenty.
The Menu has all the hallmarks of a cheap-but-smart movie: one set location, excellent blocking, a script that’s very much glued to its dialogue, and really motivated editing that makes this rather small story feel grand. It’s the kind of script that novice filmmakers may try to film, but will probably fail in adding the little details that matter. How in just a few lines you can clearly define a character like Tyler (Hoult), or the excellent planting of certain techniques that, when subverted just slightly, can get the biggest laughs.
That said, the satirical commentary that Slowik’s menu provides kinda runs out of steam towards the end, devolving into something that feels out of place. Thankfully, it’s a small enough part of the movie that doesn’t diminish my enjoyment one bit. The actual resolution of the film is one that you’ll probably scream “that’s stupid!” at if you weren’t vibing with what Mylad’s going for. In that, I respect any film that commits to its personality 100% of the way through, and The Menu certainly does that in spades. Revealing any more details about this wonderfully weird adventure would spoil too much, so just sit back, relax, pick up your forks, and enjoy the meal that has been prepared for you.
The Menu is a thrilling adventure that makes for one of the year’s most surprising hits, with an expertly executed mashing of comedy and horror.