Menu review: Anya Taylor-Joy takes on Ralph Fiennes

A satire that becomes a thriller and ultimately a horror film, Mark Mylod’s latest grabs your attention and won’t let go.

What kind of movie are we watching?

It can be one of the most exciting experiences in cinema when you ask yourself this question. You’ll ask yourself the question again and again during Mark Mylod’s “,” a film that combines multiple genres into the cinematic equivalent of fusion cuisine: it’s a satire, then a thriller, and finally a horror movie . Its screenwriters, Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, landed this script on the 2019 blacklist, and it’s easy to see why: with its premise of trapped diners and the gutting of those with power, it’s like “The Exterminating Angel” for the franchise era.

Foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) takes his new girlfriend Margot (Anya-Taylor Joy) on a trip to an ultra-exclusive restaurant, Hawthorne, which sits on a private island. It’s a suitably ominous place. Dead trees killed by salt water on the eroded beach see their gnarled trunks sprout through the sand. The restaurant’s culinary staff sleep on-site in barrack-like living quarters, rows of cots lined up next to each other: after all, they have to be up early to harvest, fish or slaughter future meals. of the day for maximum freshness. Their personal lives and individual identities have been subsumed into a kind of cult of cuisine, with the restaurant itself designed with the effect of modernism and minimalism of the house in “Parasite”.

Attention, all this is presented to the 12 guests invited for this very special meal as if it were a selling point. Look at their dedication! They do it all for you. No wonder it’s worth $1,250 per seat.

The idea of ​​strangers taking a ship to an island where they will soon be bound in an experience of terror is an old trope, from Agatha Christie to William Castle. But it’s fun how slowly “The Menu” burns as you try to figure out what’s really going on. Hoult’s Tyler is so food-obsessed and so respectful of Ralph Fiennes’ Chef Slowik, who runs this island like Jim Jones in a kitchen apron, that he comes across as a cultist. There’s nothing he won’t pay, no level of obsequiousness and humiliation he won’t sink to, to prove he’s truly passionate about the culinary arts. Hoult, one of today’s most fearless actors when it comes to being unattractive (whether it’s the vain prigs he played in ‘The Favorite’ or on ‘The Great’) , continues his streak of erasing, this time as a self-flagellating doofus committed to using goofy foodie jargon such as “mouthfeel.” He is a powerful parody of a culture in which exclusivity and unique experiences are fetishized to an unhealthy degree.

In this kind of setup, with so many characters, each must be defined by one or two traits alone to stand out – things that will come across in how they deal with the growing crisis of their situation. Here’s the food critic (Janet McTeer) who purrs with delight when Chef Slowik serves up a plate of breadless bread, with just the dipping sauces – “Fiendish!” she declares; John Leguizamo as a movie star getting ready for a food reality show; Reed Birney as a wealthy Hawthorne regular who cheated on his wife (Judith Light); and three banking brothers. By the time something unsavory from each character’s past is etched onto the personalized tortillas sent to each, you know some judgment is going to be served with each of the next dishes. The figure of “Mulholland Drive” cinematographer Peter Deming floats among the diners, uniting them all as the passive collective that they are – as harbingers of doom, why don’t they fight back more than do they do?

The leader of Fiennes speaks softly and slowly, with the unwavering inner calm of someone who knows this is all going to play out, has left no room for error, and accepts the consequences. What’s less clear is how he got his entire kitchen staff to be so completely behind his mission. It’s one of those things that could be elaborated, that could really say something about the nature of cults (in this increasingly sectarian age), about why people gravitate towards power even when it does not serve their own interests. But “The Menu” chooses to take these things for granted. This is a thriller, not a character study, and it’s easier for kitchen staff and customers to be types, like constants in an equation that ultimately expresses the narrative endgame. desired.

The only variable? Taylor-Joy’s Margot, who we quickly learn was not intended to be Tyler’s original date. Could have fooled us, given how enamored she seems to be with him at first. But the fact that she is an unexpected guest introduces an element that Chef Slowik has overlooked. For her part, Taylor-Joy delivers her most gripping performance yet as the only truly multi-dimensional character here. She sees right through Tyler’s antics and quietly rebels against it all from the start, when it’s just the pretension that offends her and not yet the murderous grandiosity. She does not accept the situation, while everyone is more than willing to do so, at least at first. And she projects intelligence, staring at Tyler in disbelief, or calling out the Leader for his self-righteous selfishness, it’s like she’s able to see the Matrix’s underlying code. Actors and actresses are always there to be watched. Those who rise to the next level often look back and look back – a big part of this movie is Taylor-Joy watching it all in disbelief.

We would like “The Menu” to say more. But it would take richer and more developed characters in addition to Margot. Want to know more about why Chief Slowik came to let grievance rule his life the way he did. But that’s just too thinly sliced ​​to make any indictment against our rising vendetta culture, in which holding grudges and settling old scores is the main driver of satisfaction, practically an entire economy. Yet “The Menu” does one thing exceptionally well: it holds your attention and makes you think for a while that any outcome is possible. That alone is something to salivate over.

Category B

“The Menu” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released by Searchlight Pictures on November 18.

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