In The Menu, a couple travel to a coastal island to eat an exclusive, one-of-a-kind menu. But the chef has some shocking surprises in store for the guests at this special dinner.
Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult play dinner guests at Hawthorn restaurant, run by Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). The genre-bending feature from Searchlight Pictures straddles the line between dark comedy and horror-thriller, satirizing wealth and pretentious foodie culture.
Welcome to Hawthorn
If you’ve ever complained about someone Instagramming a meal, been served something you’re not sure qualifies as food under the umbrella of “fine dining,” or marveled at someone’s cult-like dedication to following a particular chef or restaurant… The Menu is for you.
From the start, we’re told how absurd the dining situation at Hawthorn is. Only a small number of guests can be served (with an advanced reservation, heavy vetting, and a per-head ticket price of $1000+), and they must travel by boat to the restaurant in question. Upon their arrival, they’re given a tour of the facilities. Everything prepared at Hawthorn comes from the island itself, the guide Elsa (Hong Chau) promises. Her emphasis on precise timing, strict rules, and the schedule for Hawthorn’s staff is the first thing to set viewers on edge. It’s all a bit culty… and of course, things only escalate from there.
As the guests sit down to dinner, they’re greeted by Chef Julian Slowik (Fiennes). He promises a unique, carefully crafted fine dining menu, and a one-of-a-kind dining experience for his Hawthorn guests.
He delivers both of those things. But probably not in the way you – or the dinner guests – expect.
The Menu serves up some excellent performances
Fiennes is a powerhouse as Chef Julian Slowik: commanding and brutal one moment, ominously soft-spoken and silently observing the next. You never for a second doubt his power and influence over every aspect of Hawthorn, whether it’s his kitchen staff, the food, or the dinner guests themselves. It’s hard to portray a character who seems both unhinged and completely in control at all times, but Fiennes carries it off perfectly.
Slowik’s second-in-command, Elsa demonstrates a cult-like obsession with Hawthorn, all while delivering her best customer service smile. She’s got a menu to present and guests to serve – no matter what. For that reason, Chau’s character might be more terrifying than the Chef himself.
Meanwhile over on the guest side… Hoult’s Tyler is appropriately insufferable – the very definition of pretentious foodie. The more he fawns over Slowik and Hawthorn (going so far as to cry literal tears over a dish), the more surreal the entire dining experience feels. His obsessive, unrelenting love for the menu only throws his date Margot (Taylor-Joy) into sharper relief.
Margot’s the only “normal” (read: not insanely wealthy) guest dining at Hawthorn. From the start, she’s the average viewer’s way into the film; sure, she’s happy to enjoy a good meal, but she doesn’t really get all the hype. (And she certainly doesn’t understand dropping over a thousand dollars for one dinner.)
As the courses get more pretentious and strange (a breadless bread plate) and the other guests continue to act like Hawthorn is the best thing since sliced bread (when people still served bread), Margot’s frustration grows and sets her at odds with Slowik. As everyone else bends over backwards to please him, Taylor-Joy nails her performance as the odd one out, going toe-to-toe with the Chef. You’re rooting for her from the beginning as she points out the ridiculousness of the upper class, and then throughout The Menu as the horror escalates and she essentially transforms into the film’s Final Girl.
Sit back and enjoy The Menu
Overall, The Menu is just a solid, enjoyable watch. It gets quite a few laughs from its deconstruction of “fine dining” and “foodie” culture. At the same time, it feels universal and accessible enough so that even if you aren’t immersed in those worlds, you’ll get the dynamics at play. It may draw comparisons to Triangle of Sadness, with its coastal setting and satire of the elite. However, I found The Menu to be a more fun and enjoyable watch – and a tighter story – than Triangle overall.
The Menu is darkly funny, but as the plot escalates and it transitions into more of a thriller/horror space, some may find it stays a bit too silly. I don’t think it necessarily loses its tension, but I can see how someone heading into this one expecting a more traditional, tense thriller would feel differently. I think the performances by Taylor-Joy, Fiennes, and Chau are more than enough to add the needed gravitas to the film’s finale. No matter the twists and turns, I was always looking forward to the serving of the next course. Isn’t that all a Chef can ask for?
The Menu premieres in theaters November 18.
Now, I’m off to eat a cheap cheeseburger.