The Menu – movie review

American cinema isn’t really noted for its absurdist films. They tends to linger around the edges of an industry dominated by other genres. But The Menu breaks that stereotype wide open; as director Mark Mylod delivers one of the most deliciously absurd – and brutal – black comedies of recent years.

Mylod takes his audience on a roller-coaster ride with this film. While he signposts the ultimate ending early on, how he gets there is the real story. Much like the menu of the title, Mylod wants you to go on a “journey” (a catch-phrase of cooking shows of course). That journey gets more bizarre as the film – and the characters – unravel. If you’re a foodie who obsesses about micro-greens and molecular gastronomy, you may find this film, well, challenging. But don’t take it personally. Mylod is known for his work in television, particularly Succession. And like that show, one of his targets is actually elitism in many forms, not just food snobbery.

You’ve probably heard about those almost mythical restaurants. You know, you pre-pay hundreds of dollars, then have to travel to some remote locale with a small group of fellow diners. Once you arrive, a superstar chef will dazzle you with a degustation of exquisite food. The Menu is that – for about the first 15 minutes.

Foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) has invited Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) on a boat trip to Hawthorn, a restaurant situated on a remote island. Their dining companions include a fading movie star (John Leguizamo) and his date/PA Felicity (Aimee Carrero); a couple described as “regulars” Anne (Judith Light) and Richard (Reed Birney); and snooty food critic Lillian (Janet McTeer) and her assistant Ted (Paul Adelstein). Also along for the evening are a trio of finance bros (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro and Mark St Cyr), and a woman Linda (Rebecca Koon) who seems to be getting completely plastered on high-end wine.

After they arrive at the island, Elsa (Hong Chau) escorts them from the dock to the restaurant proper; explaining details of the operation along the way. Once inside, the doors are securely locked (!)  and the diners meet the imposing Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). After a rousing introduction in which he urges them to “don’t eat… taste”, service begins. It all seems normal enough, until Chef delivers some perplexing dishes – like a bread course with no bread. This leads to ripples of discontent from the diners – but much larger and more disturbing events will unfold over the course of the evening.

Writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy both have backgrounds that include The Onion, so satire is definitely in their wheelhouse. They structure the film around a series of incidents tied to the courses of food being served. Clever. The tension – and the absurdity – ramp up as the meal continues, ending in a delirious climax. It has a black soul and a hard edge, so don’t expect something like Big Night or Eat, Drink, Man, Woman. No, The Menu has more similarities with crazy masterpieces like Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, Her Lover (1989); and Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). Similar to those films, it includes some graphic violence and more than a little cruelty.

But it also delves into something real and kind of profound. Although it certainly skewers elitism along the way as mentioned, The Menu is ultimately concerned with guilt and reckoning. Each of the characters has something to face up to. The question is whether they’re prepared to do that themselves, or be dragged to awareness. Will it change their fate either way? Maybe, maybe not. An interesting sub-strata concerns the nature of authority and agency. Do we do things just because someone in authority tells us to, or do we have a real choice in how we live our lives? So The Menu is arguably as cerebral as it is bizarre. And while this is the darkest of comedies, it almost strays into the territory of Shakespearean tragedy at times.

Anya Taylor-Joy (Amsterdam) confirms her status at the vanguard of the best actors of her generation in a quite brilliant performance as Margot. As her foil and nemesis, Ralph Fiennes (No Time to Die) brings a surprising degree of nuance to the perhaps-unhinged Chef Slowik. Nicholas Hoult (Those Who Wish Me Dead) is hilarious as the rather naive Tyler, and he’s ably supported by Hong Chau (Homecoming) as the unsettling Elsa and John Leguizamo (John Wick: Chapter 2) as the broken-down movie star (who, despite being recognised by other diners, is never named). In fact, the whole cast are excellent.

The Menu is an inspired piece of lunacy from Mylod and his filmmaking team. This is an original and rather shocking piece of absurdism. This is definitely a film for particular audiences. It requires a lot of work from its audience. Don’t expect to be able to slip the brain into neutral here. But if black, black comedy is your bag, then a final word of advice: Don’t eat before you see this film – you will want a cheeseburger afterwards.

David Edwards

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