THE MENU movie poster | ©2022 Searchlight Films

THE MENU movie poster | ©2022 Searchlight Films

Rating: R
Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, Hong Chau, John Leguizamo, Janet McTeer, Paul Adelstein, Aimee Carrero, Judith Light, Reed Birney, Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr, Christina Brucato
Writers: Seth Reiss & Will Tracy
Director: Mark Mylod
Distributor: Searchlight Pictures
Release Date: November 18, 2022

The first thing that people should know about THE MENU is that it is not about cannibalism. Well, really the first thing people should know about THE MENU is that it’s a very good movie. However, the advertising is such that people should be warned, or reassured, as the case may be, that the story does not involve the consumption of human flesh.

In defense of the ads – and this review – for THE MENU, it’s hard to get too specific with what it is about without giving too much away.

Here’s the set-up: the tiny, heavily-wooded Hawthorne Island is home to a very exclusive, expensive, and famous restaurant. Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) presides over the operation, which includes an extremely loyal staff. Guests are ferried over from the mainland for a four-hour multi-course meal, spend the night, and then return home.

There is no exaggerating how excited Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) is to at last be able to dine at Hawthorne. He’s a foodie, who is almost as conversant with the elements of each dish as the chef is. Tyler’s date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a good sport, but she’s far less impressed with the food, the venue, and the other guests.

We learn almost at the start that Margot is a replacement for Tyler’s original date, who canceled on him. This change causes some quiet consternation, but Margot is still made welcome by the restaurant staff.

Other guests include food writer Lillian (Janet McTeer) and her publisher Ted (Paul Edelstein); an older couple, Richard (Reed Birney) and Anne (Judith Light), who have dined here frequently since the restaurant opened; a movie star (John Leguizamo) and his ambitious assistant (Aimee Carrero); and a trio of corporate dude-bros (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, Mark St. Cyr), who are big drinkers.

Each new course is introduced by the startlingly loud clap of Chef’s hands. He explains the contents and preparation of each dish, urging the diners to savor and experience every mouthful. There’s nothing particularly sinister in this – it seems like the pattern for every meal served at Hawthorne, and the regular patrons are used to it – but Margot senses there’s something off. Chef, for his part, seems uncommonly curious about Margot, including her status as a last-minute inclusion.

The script for THE MENU, by Seth Reiss & Will Tracy, is impressively articulate in examining why people do what they do, professionally and recreationally. While the specifics are about food, it’s easy enough to apply their observations about why artists create, the various reasons that people do or don’t respond to art, and how the artists react to this.

This is all made highly compelling by Mark Mylod’s direction, which imbues everything with a kind of ominous beauty. There is precision of movement and shrewd use of lighting, guiding our eyes to portions of the frame while other parts are kept purposefully dim.

There’s also the impassioned performance of Fiennes, who puts profound humanity into Chef’s outwardly commanding persona. Taylor-Joy conveys a great deal of intelligence and manages the feat of getting us to invest emotionally in a somewhat enigmatic character. Hoult finds the humor in Tyler’s enthusiasm and pretentions, Hong Chau is forceful as Chef’s right-hand woman, and McTeer is keenly on point.

THE MENU ends up being potent both because of the expertise of its makers on both sides of the camera, and because it’s ultimately about things that almost everyone will relate to, both intellectually and viscerally.

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