The Menu Review: Bold And Delicious Class Warfare Satire

It’s full of characters you love to hate, skewers pretention with smart class warfare satire, and has a striking, clean design that brilliantly bolsters the atmosphere and would earn an “A” grade from any health inspector.

Ralph Fiennes in The Menu
(Image: © Fox Searchlight)

Mark Mylod’s The Menu is a tricky movie to nail down and define. Its atmosphere is dominated by mystery, as you’re continually wondering about the truth that sits behind everything in the plot. The shock and gasps it evokes undeniably earn it the horror categorization, not to mention the palpable fear experienced by the majority of the key characters. And mixed in with those two drama-centric genres is a particular wryness that is bolstered by the clever commentary it unleashes – which is strong enough to elicit enough smiles and sinister giggles to invite the “dark comedy” description.

The genres are perfectly swirled to the point where none of them specifically stand out, leaving the film a unique emulsion that is thrilling, scary, and funny in equal measure, but more importantly, unrelentingly sharp and entertaining. It’s full of characters you love to hate, skewers pretention with smart class warfare satire, and has a striking, clean design that brilliantly bolsters the atmosphere and would earn an “A” grade from any health inspector.

Written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, The Menu begins as young couple Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) prepare to go on a gastronomic journey with a group of nine other guests, all of whom have paid $1,250 for the experience. They get on a boat and travel to the remote and private Hawthorne Island, where they have been told they will be served a multi-course dinner prepared by celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) and his cult-like kitchen staff.

The visitors – including a trio of finance bros (Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr, Rob Yang); a wealthy couple (Reed Birney, Judith Light); a restaurant critic and her editor (Janet McTeer, Paul Adelstein); and an actor with his assistant (John Leguizamo, Aimee Carrero) – all expect to be treated to a world-class meal, but they end up getting something quite different instead. The chef has planned out a special theme for the select group of diners, and it slowly starts to make itself apparent with each new course that is served. They learn that all of them have been picked and invited to go to Hawthorne for specific reasons beyond their ability to pay the high price for the exclusive event… though it turns out that Margot is an accidental exception with a secret of her own.

If you can avoid it, don't get spoiled on The Menu's twists and turns.

That description of The Menu’s plot should be all that anyone knows about this movie before sitting down for the theatrical experience, as the reveals are a key part of the fun. In attempt to not ratchet expectations too high, it should be said that the surprises may perhaps not stretch your imagination, but they are well-constructed, grounded, and satisfying. The film uses the courses of the meal as a skeleton for the plot structure, and each one serves up something enthralling, exciting, and/or horrifying that effectively enhances the story and raises the stakes for the characters. It starts innocuously as the patrons are confused as to why they are served condiments but none of the restaurant’s world-famous bread, and builds from there.

Within these narrative progressions, the movie smartly utilizes its large ensemble and finds impressive ways of building the individual characters – delivering exposition that never feels like exposition. The audience picks up clues from their private conversations that inform their personalities as well as the larger mystery in the film (including effective red herrings in the mix that are tempting to chase). Additionally, there are entertaining dynamics to follow, the standouts in the supporting cast being the beleaguered working relationship between the assistant and fading movie star, and the sycophantic support that the editor provides his star restaurant critic.

The Menu's entire cast is fantastic, but its three main stars shine particularly bright. 

There is no weak leak in the cast of The Menu, but there are standouts… and they’re probably the names that you are expecting. Anya Taylor-Joy, for starters, continues to prove herself over and over again as one of the premier leading actors of her generation as she effortlessly pops. Amidst all of the pomp and fawning over the food at Hawthorne, she provides a more cynical, working class perspective that intriguingly clouds Julian Slowik’s presentation, and she is phenomenal as the cutting teeth with which the satire bites.

Amazing for exact opposite reasons, Nicholas Hoult is a terrific scene-stealer as well. Tyler could be described as a caricature, as he is incarnate what you imagine when you think of an affected foodie who can’t take a bit of a meal without photographing it first, but it importantly never feels phony or like parody. Tyler’s ridiculousness, particularly as the chaos in the film starts to mount, is a comedy wellspring for the film, but he certainly gets his own intense moments of drama as well.

As The Menu’s enigmatic antagonist, Ralph Fiennes regularly and instantly captivates attention with ear drum-shattering claps that shake your spine each and every time, but the gesture is practically symbolic of the actor’s gravitas and screen presence. As he presents each course, you can tell that there is something bubbling up behind his eyes and ready to boil over, and it’s translated externally as a fierce intensity from which you’re afraid to look away (what could be called the “Fiennes Special” at this point). And he’s particularly fun to see spar with Anya Taylor-Joy, as Julian knows that Margot is not supposed to be there, and he has no idea what to do about it.

The design of The Menu alone instills its own level of tension.

In addition to getting the focus of his patrons, Julian’s aforementioned claps are a tool that is used by The Menu to demonstrate the chef’s extreme command over his kitchen staff – who react to the sound in regimented fashion and instantly halt their work to listen to their leader. That expressed control and rigidity bleeds into the film’s larger aesthetic in remarkable fashion, and adds a thick layer of tension to the entire enterprise. The sound editing is spectacular (the movie need not do more than have the staff loudly declare, “Yes, chef” to intensify any given moment), and the production design is rich and pristine… which just invites you to think about the mess that is going to muss it all up.

Between the multi-layered mystery and the blended tones, The Menu is complex treat, but one that only becomes more and more satisfying as it goes. It has tremendous presentation, and offers delicious social commentary. Make a meal of it before it’s spoiled.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

NJ native who calls LA home and lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran who is endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.