You likely know people who are just like some, if not all, of the principal characters in director Mark Mylod’s The Menu—a brisk and compelling ode to/takedown of restaurant culture that ditches the rose-colored glasses for a darker dissection of obsession, burnout and charlatanry. Mylod has, thus far, been more of a television director with numerous big-hitter series including Shameless and Game of Thrones under his belt. With The Menu, however, he’s proven a knack for the eerie and unsettling, though within its norm-core setup we can easily see ourselves, and it’s not the most palatable reflection to observe, even if it is a fun ride.
In The Menu, numerous well-to-do types travel to a remote island to dine at the most exclusive restaurant run by the most exclusive chef (Ralph Fiennes). Our in with the diners comes courtesy of ostensible foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult, The Great) and his companion, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), someone who clearly has a secret of some kind. He’s a loudmouth food lover who feels the need to aggressively explain how the rest of us should go about tasting food—the mouthfeel, the flavor, the chefs themselves—and who needs the chef to know he’s knowledgable; Margot, meanwhile, loudly proclaims she’s not as into it: Service folk, she says, need not be impressed by their diners. Elsewhere in the dining room, wealthy mucky-mucks rub shoulders with douchey finance bros and pretentious food critics; John Leguizamo’s faded star emphatically lies about a close friendship with the chef, while the chef’s mother drinks herself into a wordless oblivion in the corner.
The big change, then, happens so gradually that we hardly see it coming. The chef, seemingly under pressure, starts serving concepts rather than dishes: A note that explains the bread they’re not eating was developed by such-and-such grain-based nonprofit, tortillas with damning bank records and images of cheating husbands etched into their surface with food lasers. Everyone seems willing to go along with its theatrical aspects because the chef is so brilliant, but Margot—the one diner not of means—finds herself at odds with the presentation.
The Menu is a tough film to review without spoiling its twists, so we’ll leave it at that before mentioning Fiennes’ commanding performance is an absolute career high. Similarly, Taylor-Joy, who will apparently be in pretty much any film we ever see again, nails the tough but tragic Margot. Against her date’s idiocy, she might be the most normal person on the island, though Hoult proves once again to be one of the finer actors working today. Writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, meanwhile, are the true heroes, particularly in how they painstakingly show us it’s silly to work ourselves to death, all the while obsessing over whether—and to whom—it matters. Do we ever stop to ask ourselves what we really think? Perhaps too late, The Menu posits. By the time we hit this realization, however, it’s entirely possible we’re trapped too deep.
+Shocking and intriguing; clever; brilliantly acted
-Lack of concrete answers
Directed by Mylod
With Fiennes, Taylor-Joy, Hoult and Leguizamo
Violet Crown, R, 107 min.