Synopsis: Young couple Margot and Tyler travel to a remote island to eat at Hawthorne, an exclusive restaurant run by celebrity chef Julian Slowik, who has prepared a lavish molecular gastronomy menu where food is treated as conceptual art, but his approach to cuisine has some shocking surprises for the wealthy guests.
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, Ralph Fiennes, Hong Chau, Janet McTeer, Judith Light, John Leguizamo, Reed Birney, Paul Adelstein
Director: Mark Mylod
Running Length: (9.5/10)
Review: Good from the first bite. If I were the type of reviewer quoted in film ads, that would be the line I hope they ran attributed to me with the wicked new thriller, The Menu. And that’s the best way to start reviewing what will likely be one of my favorite films I’ve seen in 2022. I’m naturally attracted to movies with a black heart, but screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy have cooked up something unnaturally dark for a pre-Thanksgiving theatrical dining experience. It might not be to everyone’s palette, but it’s hard to consider anyone walking out of a seating feeling they hadn’t been well-served by all involved.
It starts with the opening credits, inviting you to “experience” The Menu, and then director Mark Mylod drops you right into the pot of chilly water he hasn’t started to warm up yet (but soon will bring to a blistering boil). This is when we meet our dining companions as they journey from an unnamed mainland (the film was shot in Savannah) and make their way to an exclusive restaurant on a private island. The restaurant is Hawthorne, and it’s presided over by mysterious but renowned celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel), who charges $1,250 per person for the evening.
A brief tour of the island by Elsa (Hong Chau, Downsizing), Julian’s front-of-house manager, shows the guests the food they’ll be eating and the living quarters of the staff working on the island. Everyone works as a cohesive unit in service to Slowik to put out the best food – nothing less will do. This is how he can demand that high price and why an invitation to dine is highly coveted in foodie, celebrity, and influencer circles. Among those dining tonight is a food critic (Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs), a trio of obnoxious financial upstarts, a blowhard actor (John Leguizamo, Encanto) and his long-suffering assistant), and a stalwart married couple (Reed Birney, Mass, & Judith Light, tick, tick… BOOM!) who appear to be regulars.
An unexpected guest wasn’t on the original list, surprising both Elsa and Julian. Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy, Last Night in Soho) accompanies Tyler (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), but they are expecting another woman in her place. A break-up left one seat open, and rather than miss out on a dinner he’s looked forward to, the bullish millennial thought he could bring anyone he wanted instead. Margot isn’t just anyone, though. She hasn’t earned her seat like the others attending and doesn’t play into Julian’s overall plan for the night. Because he does have a plan, and as each course arrives, it gives a clearer picture that each patron has been carefully selected as an ingredient to a final dish no one could have predicted.
To say more about The Menu would show how the proverbial sausage is made, and I wouldn’t want to spoil that fun. Mylod and the screenwriters use their 106 minutes wisely, nudging your nerves tighter and tenser each time a new dish is announced with Slowik’s sharp clap to call everyone’s attention. This is a rare meal that gets tastier the more you find out what’s going into the pot, and yet you still can’t quite figure out what the end game is until it arrives. Through it all, there’s bountiful amounts of acerbic humor directed at everything from bad movies to infidelity.
Each table features its own mini murders row of talent. You can imagine the restaurant serving as the jumping-off place (or ending up?) for an anthology series featuring these actors, and I’d be curious to see what they were doing 24 hours before they hopped on the boat to the island. Taylor-Joy is a rising star for a reason, and she proves it again here by easily sliding into an established leading lady mode. She’s comfortable going eye-to-eye with Fiennes, who should honestly be attempting an Oscar campaign for his work here. Best of all is Chau as your traditionally snobby front-of-house worker but taken to a far more sinister place – each scene she’s in and each line she coolly hisses out is pure gold.
I’ll be making multiple return visits to The Menu; I’m confident of that and can easily recommend it to anyone that likes a little show with their dinner. Please don’t go into it hungry, though, because you’ll wind up competing with a growling stomach by the time the film is half over. There are some gorgeous shots of the dishes Fiennes and his team whip up, and you may be tempted to reach out and try to touch them they are so tasty looking. Be warned, there’s more to them than meets the eye.