Twenty seconds into the trailer for Searchlight Pictures’ new food/horror hybrid The Menu, a character makes a prophetic statement: “Tonight,” he says, “will be madness.” And after watching the film, I can say two things for certain: It delivers on that promise, and I’m still smiling from the experience.
Staring Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, and a pitch-perfect Ralph Fiennes as luminary Chef Julian Slowik, The Menu takes place during the span of a single dining service, with 12 guests, the restaurant staff, and a series of increasingly bizarre and violent dinner courses that escalate to a surreal, intoxicating peak. It’s also a film that, if you’ll excuse the expression, requires some time to digest. There’s a great deal of subtlety, both in characterization and presentation, that benefits from multiple viewings.
I went to the theater expecting more or less a culinary version of The Most Dangerous Game. The trailer encourages this interpretation, with its island setting, menacing atmosphere, and glimpses of violent pursuit. And honestly, that’s fine—I’m always up for a daring black comedy, especially if there’s food involved.
But what audiences get instead is something altogether different and more unexpected. I don’t like to speak in superlatives when it comes to movies, but with its clever writing, excellent cast, and outstanding photography, The Menu has the heart and hallmarks of a potential classic. And not in the cult sense, like Blood Diner or Attack of the Killer Donuts. This is something new and fresh.
From the outset, the members of the dining party (with the exception of Taylor-Joy’s Margot) are deliciously insufferable. Their cavalier attitudes, petty squabbles, and disregard for the staff at the posh and exclusive Hawthorne had me openly rooting for their demise.
Now, maybe that has something to do with my personal baggage from years in the food service industry. But The Menu isn’t as simple as a “customers vs. workers” satire. From a critic waxing poetic after being denied a loaf of bread to a diner’s insistence on photographing each course of the meal, everyone—the food media, hero-worshiping home cooks, self-important visionaries, the indifferent masses—gets absolutely roasted.
And, quite frankly, most of it feels well deserved. Good satire should make you think, and there’s plenty of hubris to go around. If you don’t recognize some piece of yourself amongst the guests and staff, you’re simply not looking hard enough.
And once you begin to recognize the face on the other side of the table, the hook is set: You’re drawn in, eagerly waiting for the final serving of comeuppance. Nevertheless, The Menu takes its time. It’s paced and planned out like the tasting menu at the center of its narrative.
Early on in the film’s 106-minute runtime, the diners are treated to a tour of the island and its facilities. At one of these stops, host Elsa (played by Hong Chau) explains how the staff ages their meat, aiming for the perfect moment between freshness and spoilage. The movie handles its horror in exactly the same way. It waits, aging the tension among its developing characters and unfurling intrigue until just the right instant.
With the sheer amount of discomfort oozing from the screen, there’s a moment or two where things get a bit overwrought. But for the most part, The Menu sticks to a credo: We deserve what we get, and every inch of what we don’t.
Even as it descends into hopelessness, the film remains wickedly funny. This humor is absolutely vital because, without it, The Menu would be little more than another “Mad genius on his private island” story or, worse, a pedantic cautionary tale about the dangers of hubris. The incisive voice of writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy (who formerly worked at The Takeout’s sister site, The Onion) instead delivers a cathartic and hilarious ride.
The restraint that informs the comedy carries over to the film’s music, sound design, and direction. It feels like there’s a genuine vision here, and a bitter passion, things for which, to paraphrase Chef Slowik, “there are no substitutions.” Come for the horror, stay for the satire, including the best and quickest student loan joke you’ll ever hear.