'The Menu': A Deliciously Dark Comedic Thriller
Having watched the trailer for The Menu a fair amount of times over the past few months, I was worried that I knew exactly what to expect going into it. It played before several movies that I've seen recently, and I felt like I had a pretty good idea of what twists and turns awaited, and that the film would be a bit of a let down. To my surprise, the film deviated greatly from my expectations, and ended up being quite different (and much funnier) than I was expecting. It takes some turns that I genuinely did not expect, and it is so engaging from start to finish. It is a lean, mean, and sharply written satire, and one of the year's most welcome surprises for me.
The Menu follows group of wealthy elites who arrive on an island, which is home to a exclusive restaurant called Hawthorne. The restaurant is owned and operated by renowned chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) who has crafted a luxurious menu for the guests. But as the night goes on, it is clear that he has more in store for them than just a lovely dinner. What follows is a darkly funny film that takes aim at the upper class, and provides a thoughtful commentary on artistry in the process.
What stood out to me immediately is the film's script, as it is well-constructed and has some great insight to what it is satirizing. Seth Reiss and Will Tracy's screenplay zeroes in on the culture of fine dining, while also exploring what happens when the joy of creating art has disappeared. These intersect through the character of Julian, who has grown tired of making the high-end cuisine that made him famous, which leads him to formulating the sinister plan he enacts in the film. As the film progresses, we see how this plan unfolds, which builds to a one-two punch of a finale, where we get a lovely moment between Julian and Anya Taylor-Joy's character, Margot, before the film ends in a gloriously wild final course. It all comes together to show how ego and prestige can affect artists, and makes a bold statement on the current status of art in various forms. It might be through a culinary lens in the context of the film, but it can easily be applied to other artforms as well.
As for the way it skewers the upper class, it is quite astute and specific in its approach. It never comes across as being too hamfisted or clichéd, and sets its sights on an eclectic cast of characters. This allows the film to not paint with a broad brush, and the details of the characters are woven into the film nicely. So many aspects of the characters are conveyed in a simple way that doesn't waste too much time, while still giving the audience plenty to grab onto. It leans into the absurdity of what the upper class can afford and get away with, and what happens when they are confronted with the harsh reality of their actions, as well as who they actually are when they are stripped of the prestige they hide behind. It's hard to get into specifics without feeling like I'm spoiling major details, but I will say that the incisiveness of its commentary on the upper class is quite effective, and comes across succinctly without it feeling like the film is beating you over the head with it.
Mark Mylod is a great fit for this material, as he has shown his knack for portraying the outlandish lives of the rich in several episodes of Succession. Mylod is able to deftly balance the more absurd elements of what the characters are experiencing with a sense of reality, which allows these moments to hit even harder. It also helps that he has a background in comedy, which contributes partially to the film's great comedic edge and timing. Dark comedy can be tricky to pull off, but Mylod clearly has the goods, and perfectly taps into the energy that Reiss and Tracy have in their script.
A lot of credit is due to the film's solid ensemble cast, who all inhabit the world of the film so well. Ralph Fiennes is quite incredible, giving a restrained yet powerful performance as Julian. He is quite intimidating, yet there are so many things that he is doing under the surface that makes his work here so mesmerizing. Anya Taylor-Joy feels a bit muted, but she takes on the role of the outsider pretty well, and makes for a good audience surrogate. She does play the mysteriousness of her character quite nicely, and her work in the film's third act is some of her best to date. I couldn't help but be entranced by Hong Chau's performance, as she has this amazing presence throughout the film. It often feels like she is everywhere at all times, keenly observing the guests and making sure that the evening goes according to plan. She is rather intense, and has this steeliness that gives the character some serious edge. Nicholas Hoult is also fantastic as an obsessed fan of Julian. Hoult plays the earnest fanboy qualities of his character with great skill, and pokes fun at a very specific type of person. He is great throughout, but he has a moment where he is brought to the forefront of the evening that is both heartbreaking and funny. He has this excellent reaction shot during this scene, and it honestly blew me away. The rest of the cast is also quite good, with John Leguizamo, Reed Birney, Judith Light, and Janet McTeer all standing out. It's such a great cast from top to bottom, and everyone does their part so well.
The film boasts some great camerawork courtesy of legendary cinematographer Peter Deming. He gives the film a sleek look that contrasts nicely with the less than savory moments of the film. He also does a fantastic job of photographing the food, as he makes it look absolutely delicious, and highlights the intricacy of the plating of the dishes. The score from Colin Stetson is excellent as well, and uses strings so beautifully. It fits the film like a glove, and is easily one of my favorite scores of the year. I also loved the design of the restaurant, as it is simple, yet striking. It may not be anything too elaborate, but it feels so distinct and unique at the same time.
The Menu is quite different and far better than what I was expecting, and is right up my alley. The comedy is pitch perfect, and the darker aspects of the film are pulled off spectacularly. It's a brilliant satire of artistry and the upper class, and is so exquisitely crafted across the board. It's both one of the funniest and one of the most thrilling films I've seen in recent memory, as well as an excellent surprise altogether. It's simply phenomenal, and makes for a multi-course meal of a film that left me feeling immensely satisfied.