November 16, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Mark Mylod
Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in an unnamed part of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, the horror film “The Menu” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians and Latinos and one African American) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: Eleven people gather to dine at an exclusive, high-priced restaurant on an isolated island, where they eventually find out that the chef has prepared a deadly menu.
Culture Audience: “The Menu” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy, and who are interested in well-acted horror films that are satires of wealthy people and social climbers.
“The Menu” succumbs to horror stereotypes in the last 15 minutes of the film. However, the overall movie is an entertaining ride that pokes fun at pretentiousness and obsessive ambition that are spawned from the pursuit of fame, wealth, and power. The sinister intentions in the story are foreshadowed early on, so the main suspense comes from finding who will survive in this horror film that is both gruesomely grim and wickedly comedic. “The Menu” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival before screening at several other film festivals in 2022, such as Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, and the Zurich Film Festival in Switzerland.
Directed by Mark Mylod, “The Menu” was co-written by Will Tracy and Seth Reiss. The movie was inspired by a real-life experience that Tracy had when he want to an exclusive, upscale restaurant on a private island in Norway. In the production notes for “The Menu,” Tracy remembers how he felt: “It was a small island. And I realized, ‘Oh, we’re stuck here for four hours. What if something goes wrong?’”
As shown in the trailers for “The Menu,” it’s a movie where the worst things that can possibly go wrong become a nightmarish reality for the restaurant guests. “The Menu” takes place almost entirely on an unnamed private island somewhere in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. (“The Menu” was actually filmed in Savannah, Georgia.) And it’s an isolated island where the only attraction is an exclusive, invitation-only restaurant called Hawthorn, which is surrounded by a wooded area.
Hawthorn’s chef is a stern taskmaster named Julian Slowik (played by Ralph Fiennes), who has become legendary in culinary circles for his highly unusual menu items. Getting an invitation to Hawthorn (which has a sleek, modern decor) is considered one of the highest achievements for people who want to be in the upper echelon of elite foodies. Much of the movie’s satire and horror come from the characters’ desire to have this social status at any cost.
In addition to paying the fee of $1,250 per person, invited guests at Hawthorn have to agree to two main rules: They cannot go to the restaurant solo. And they cannot take photos while they’re at the restaurant. The multi-course dinner at Hawthorn is supposed to take place over four hours and 25 minutes, ending at around 2 a.m.
“The Menu” begins by showing the 11 people who are Hawthorn’s current dinner guests, as they travel on a boat taking them to the island where Hawthorn is located. They are greeted by Hawthorn’s no-nonsense captain Elsa (played by Hong Chau), who acts as a knowledgeable hostess and an unforgiving disciplinarian to the customers. Viewers will later see that all of Hawthorn’s employees act like cult followers of Chef Slowik.
The 11 dinner guests who take this fateful trip are:
- Tyler Ledford (played by Nicholas Hoult), who is in his early 30s, considers himself to be a foodie extraordinaire. He is a superfan of Chef Slowik, and it’s a dream come true for Tyler to be invited to dine at Hawthorn.
- Margot Mills (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), who is in her mid-20s, is Tyler’s date, and she doesn’t really care about the prestigious reputation of Hawthorn. Margot is Tyler’s last-minute companion for this dinner. He was originally going to take a girlfriend, but that relationship recently ended, and he didn’t have time to inform Hawthorn in advance that Margot is his replacement guest.
- George Diaz, a fast-talking movie star in his 50s (played by John Leguizamo), is annoyed that his assistant didn’t book the reservation under his preferred alias, Damian Garcia, because he’s concerned about the paparazzi knowing that he’s at Hawthorn. He is self-centered, demanding and paranoid. His career as an actor has been on the decline, and he’s at Hawthorn as research, because he wants to reinvent himself as the host of a food/travel show.
- Felicity (played by Aimee Carrero), who is in her 20s, is the movie star’s personal assistant. She reacts to his ego posturing and rude bossiness with a mixture of apathy, pity and disdain. Felicity, whose mother is a movie-studio executive, has the attitude of someone who is close to quitting her job but is staying out of a misguided sense of loyalty to a boss who doesn’t appreciate her.
- Lillian Bloom (played by Janet McTeer), who is in her early 60s, is a haughty and very pretentious food critic whose ego has been overblown by whatever fame she has. She likes being the center of attention and thinks that her opinion is the only opinion that matters.
- Ted (played by Paul Adelstein), who is in his early 50s, is Lillian’s “yes man” editor at the magazine where they work. Ted pathetically agrees with almost everything that Lillian says, even if he might secretly disagree with her. Lillian and Ted both like to take credit for helping make Chef Slowik a star, since their magazine gave him positive coverage early in Chef Slowik’s career.
- Richard (played by Reed Birney), who is his late 60s, is a rich man whose wealth is not really explained in the movie. He conducts himself with an air of someone who is used to getting what he wants.
- Anne (played by Judith Light), who is in her early 70s, is Richard’s wife who appears accustomed to living in his shadow. Unlike the other guests, Richard and Anne have dined at Hawthorn many times. Anne and Richard are longtime spouses, but their marriage appears to be stagnant and strained.
- Soren (played by Arturo Castro), Dave (played by Mark St. Cyr) and Bryce (played by Rob Yang), who are in their 30s, are co-workers who have become recent millionaires in the technology industry. Their boss Doug Varick is the chief investor and owner of Hawthorn, so these three “tech bros” go into the restaurant with an extreme sense of entitlement. They also like to show off and brag about their wealth. Soren is the cockiest and loudest of the three pals.
During the check-in process, Elsa is immediately annoyed because Margot’s name is not on the guest list. Tyler nervously explains that the woman he originally invited couldn’t be there, and Margot is his date instead. Elsa reluctantly allows Margot to go to Hawthorn. Later, Chef Slowik also gets irritated that Margot is not someone who was on the expected guest list. Because, yes, “The Menu” is one of those horror movies where people were invited to an isolated area for a specific reason.
As the dinner becomes increasingly ominous, the invited guests eventually find out why they were brought to Hawthorn, as secrets about the guests are revealed in different parts of the movie. Margot’s unexpected presence and her obvious lack of admiration for Hawthorn end up unnerving Chef Slowik so much, he follows Margot into the restroom to demand to know why she doesn’t seem to be impressed with the food and the restaurant.
“The Menu” has a simple concept and very few surprises. However, the movie has a crackling intensity to it, punctuated by moments of dark comedy, because of the snappy dialogue and the cast members’ always-watchable performances. The obnoxiously pompous conversations between Lillian and Ted are some of the comedic highlights of the movie.
Chau’s portrayal of dour Elsa also has its funny moments because of her cynical insults and the ways she passively-aggressively gets revenge on customers she thinks are getting out of line. The “tech bros” repeatedly request bread for their table, but their requests are refused by Elsa, so the “tech bros” react by trying to use their connection to Hawthorn owner Doug Varick as clout. Bryce impatiently asks her: “You know who we are, right?” Elsa calmly says that she knows who they are, but they still won’t be served any bread. She then says quietly in Soren’s ear: “You’ll eat less than you desire and more than you deserve.”
The menu items look decorative when served as they’re masterpieces, but they are often examples of theater of the absurd, such as a second-course serving that consists of a “breadless bread plate.” Chef Slowik haughtily explains, “Bread is for the common man. You are not the common man.” The dinner guests look like they don’t want to think that some of what they’re being served is a joke—and the joke’s on them.
Tyler and Margot, who barely know each other, end up clashing on many different levels, because they view the Hawthorn experience so differently. Margot is quick to call out any rudeness and disrespect she sees at Hawthorn, but Tyler is quick to ignore any bad conduct because he doesn’t want to get banned from Hawthorn. Hoult and Taylor-Joy have some memorable scenes together, but Taylor-Joy has the more substantial role in the movie. It should come as no surprise that there’s more to Margot than what she first appears to be.
As for chief villain Chef Slowik, he reveals things about his past that partially explain his obsessive need for control, perfection and being considered one of the best restaurant chefs ever. The movie has some predictable scenes of Chef Slowik humiliating some members of his staff, including sous chefs named Jeremy Loudon (played by Adam Aalderks) and Katherine Keller (played by Christina Brucato). Chef Slowik’s mother Linda (played by Rebecca Koon) is seated by herself in the restaurant’s dining area, but she spends most of the movie in a drunken stupor.
Chef Slowik doesn’t own Hawthorn, so there’s an underlying insecurity to his madness that’s impossible to ignore. Fiennes brings both cold calculation and unbridled rage to his role as this evil chef with murderous intentions. Chef Slowik is both transparent and mysterious, consistent yet unpredictable. This dichotomous nature makes him a fascinating character to watch.
“The Menu” also hilariously lampoons the way that people mindlessly buy into whatever overpriced ridiculousness they think will give them higher social status than others. For example, at one point during the dinner, Chef Slowik orders the guests: “Do not eat. Taste, relish, savor. Do not eat. Our menu is too precious for that.”
Imagine being served a meal at a restaurant, but then being told not to eat that meal because it’s “too precious” to eat. Some of the guests, especially Tyler, are so enthralled with whatever Chef Slowik has to say, they could have an empty plate put in front of them at Hawthorn and be convinced that the plate’s “aura” is the greatest thing they ever experienced at a restaurant. Tyler gushes about Chef Slowik to Margot: “He’s not a chef. He’s a storyteller.”
Of course, things eventually get very ugly and un-glamorous at Hawthorn. “The Menu” falls apart a little bit when it turns into a standard schlockfest, with the expected attempts to escape from the island, and some bloody fights for survival. Some of the characters are very underdeveloped, such as the “tech bros” and Chef Slowik’s mother. Even though the concept of people trapped in an isolated area is an over-used basis for a horror movie, “The Menu” serves up enough of freshness and originality to make it a thrilling and terrifying story.
Searchlight Pictures will release “The Menu” in U.S. cinemas on November 18, 2022.