Part social satire, part morality tale and part horror film, “The Menu” mixes it’s ingredients in the right proportions to set a satisfying movie meal before you. If you think too hard about what it all means, you are probably committing some of the same offenses as one of the lead characters in this film. Be careful, you could end up in the sequel called “The Screening”. If you can just sit back and savor what is in front of you, you will enjoy it so much more. Then you can digest it for hours afterwards and come up with all the right adjectives to make your own dessert.
The trailer for the film seems to suggest that this is a variation of the Hunger Games with guests being hunted down by the staff. That scenario does occur for about three minutes of the film, but it is mostly misdirection. This is a story about a group of zealots, taking out their frustrations on what they see as deserving targets, before they themselves participate in their own version of the “Heaven’s Gate” event from nearly twenty five years ago. This time, the cult leader “Do” is replaced with the star Chef played by Ralph Fiennes. Chef Slowik is a lot more charismatic than the befuddled Marshall Applewhite, but he is no less deadly and utterly fierce in his convictions. There is an incident in the story to demonstrate how he feels no compunction over what he is planning, because he is taking blame for his faults as well. This scene helps set up the twist at the end because we learn that in spite of the narcissism that he is guilt of, he wants to reject the label of being “special”. A chink in the armor is revealed.
With flashes of brilliant absurdism, the conceit of an exclusive dining establishment, imposing a menu on the guests that reflect their vapidity works very well at providing opportunities for surprise. A gourmet take down of the guests with the denial of a standard part of the meal, provokes laughter at the haughty way it is imposed and the deconstructionist baloney that lets the guests accept it. This is followed by a true reveal of how insidious the evening is going to be with a shocking swipe at mere excellence, in a ugly joke perpetuated as a lost soul dies. The nature of the cultish thought process sinks in at this point and that is where the real horror begins.
Anya Taylor-Joy as the last minute replacement on the guest list, matches words with the Chef in an assertive manner that gets slapped down, at least until she discovers the way to a man’s heart is through his choice of cuisine. Nicholas Hoult as a preening foodie who laps up all of the experience as a member of a very different cult, also provides a huge amount of amusement by his words and actions. It is the early relationship between Hoult and Taylor-Joy that makes the set up so intriguing and at first funny. In the end though, It is her manipulation of inside knowledge and her understanding of the Chef, that makes the story soar at the end.
“The Menu” has plenty of other characters but they are used for very brief bits of business. The three corporate stooges who feel entitled by their positions, each offer a moment of levity, but the story never takes any of them seriously. The same is true of the other guests. They have some chances to get a laugh out of us, or joust unsuccessfully with the staff, but in the long run they are background for the main relationship of the film. The devious menu is capped off with a dessert that mocks the gourmet spirit of the guests and celebrates the mendacity of the Chef and his crew. It will also provide you with an hysterical visual joke to finish your meal with. “Bon appetite!”