Bon appetit! It’s something of relief to report that Mark Mylod’s culinary-noir thriller The Menu is exactly the blast of populist, adult orientated entertainment that the big screen has been sorely lacking of late. It’s a multiple character riff on The Most Dangerous Game that certainly gets nasty, but doesn’t revel in the cartoonish violence of Ready or Not. That Knives Out play-as-any-character vibe seems to be a sure-fire winner in our ongoing culture-wars, but The Menu ‘relaxes the protein strands’ and hits the spot where The Hunt didn’t; setting up an unknown world ripe with tension, and exploring it through the eyes of a great protagonist, Margot Mills, played by Anya Taylor-Joy.
Joy’s movie roles haven’t quite been up to the grand-master level of The Queen’s Gambit, but she’s in her high-cheekboned, backless dress element as the unexpectedly feisty substitute date of foppish foodie fanboy Tyler (well played by Nicholas Hoult). Tyler’s off to an exclusive private island to sample a $12,000 a head private dinner along with a small, select audience of gastronomic tourists invited by reclusive chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) to experience ‘art on the edge of the abyss’. Poor Margot is dropped into this narrative as an interloper, uninvited, but we get clues from an admirably terse cigarette-smoking opening that Margot is not what she appears to be…
Those along for the ride, or the slide into gastronomic excess that harms and destroys the lives of the diners and staff alike, include John Leguizamo as a fading actor, Janet McTeer as Slowik’s champion critic, and a few mysterious business interests; once it’s clear that they are captives, The Menu has plenty of opportunities for the rough and tumble we expect from a cinematic hostage situation. But Slowik’s plan is darker than just murder or revenge, think Se7en dark, or the indulgent murder-suicide pact of La Grande Bouffe. There are digested elements of the structured, ritualistic approach to closed-court bodily functions in Salo, The Cook, The Thief, The Wife and Her Lover, or even Fiennes’ early role in The Baby of Macon; the guests may be starved, but this is a feast of cineastes who can get behind a macabre concept that never gets silly or glib.
Everything’s a matter of taste, but Seth Reiss and Will Tracy’s script never settles for the conventional punch-ups and sharp, judiciously aimed Sabatiers, and justifies a few theatrical fake-outs and potential plot holes with a literate, on-point finale in which the resourceful Margot attempts to reason and talk her way to safety, laying bare the film’s justifably angry critique of the villain’s psychology. It’s a stone-cold classic final scene, a rigorous topper that has the groundwork laid via strong character development and uniformly committed performances; The Menu isn’t the horror flick that was teased, lacking cannibals under the floorboards or bone-crunching kitchen killers, although the big shock moments are genuinely jolting and graphic; it’s a well-worked slice of Grand Guiginol which should leave audiences keen for further helpings from all concerned. The Menu is just as good as everyone’s saying; the squeamish should stay at home, but for those intrepid gourmets seeking a grown-up cinematic adventure, it’s one big chef’s kiss all round!