Cooking, like any art, can be performative and boundary-pushing. Mark Mylod’s “The Menu” explores this concept in interesting ways, as the film tells a story about a group of people who pay a premium for an evening meal from a prestigious chef named Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) who is intent on giving them anything but a typical dining experience.
Guests Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and Margot Mills (Anya Taylor-Joy) serve as our protagonists and primary point-of-view characters. Tyler is a food aficionado, while Mills is revealed to be his backup date who is only kind of interested in the meal, which takes place on a sprawling estate on a private island only accessible by boat. Also with them are food critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer), actor George Diaz (John Leguizamo) and regular Richard (Reed Birney) and Anne Leibrandt (Judith Light), among others. They are directed through the meal by Elsa (Hong Chau), Slowik’s maître d’hôtel, as well as Slowik himself.
Early on, the whole place feels a bit off. Elsa shows them around the estate, going into great detail the care and dedication they put into the food, but she also reveals communal living quarters and the estate’s cult-like rules in which Slowik controls every aspect of his staff’s lives and they are left with no time or means to have personal relationships outside the estate. They all seem glad to submit to his ironfisted rule, in hopes of progressing their own careers.
The meal itself also defies expectations, with Slowik presenting each course with interesting and provocative yet inappropriate allegories that reveal their themes and thesis. For instance, Slowik goes into great detail about the history of bread and how it’s a stable of the common man, but the guests themselves are not common and therefore get no bread. He then gives them an alternate course and a detailed description of the bread they aren’t going to have.
It’s an interesting concept that essentially combines dining with performance art, one that Slowik manipulates to his advantage to excuse his increasingly bizarre behavior throughout the film. By the time his nefarious intent is revealed, it is too late for the guests to resist and most of them don’t want to — they’ve been drawn into his allure like his staff, complicit and helpless as he sets their destruction into motion.
Mills is the one character who is able to break his seduction and almost foil his plans for the sole reason that she’s not supposed to be there and does not fit in with the other diners. Each one is terrible in their own way; Bloom’s reviews have ruined multiple restaurants; the Leibrandts are bad customers; a group of male customers have committed financial fraud; and Slowik just didn’t like a movie Diaz starred in. However, Mills is innocent and is also able to relate to Slowik on the bases of also being a food service worker, which gives her hope and a chance to escape.
This is a deliciously made film powered by a great performance by Fiennes and a very good outing by Taylor-Joy, whose character is able to keep up with Slowik’s madness. Slowik’s character is so alluring because he is both deeply insightful yet constantly trudging on the abyss of psychopathy. He is a man who has obtained everything, yet still has nothing and wants to make a memorable statement, no matter the cost. However, he is hopelessly blind to his own shortsightedness and the echo chamber he’s built around himself; he’s built an environment where no one can tell him no or make an attempt to make him change his ways, which makes him vulnerable to Mills.
With a delectable concept cooked perfectly, this is easily one of the best films of 2022.
“The Menu” gets a 9/10
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