Anya Taylor-Joy is the author of The Menu’s dark and twisty mayhem.

Polygon was present at the 2022 Fantastic Fest and reported on new horror and sci-fi movies. This review was published in conjunction with the film’s Fantastic Fest premiere.

2021’s movie scene of the year — the one that dominated critic and cinephile talk during awards season — came from Michael Sarnoski’s Pig, a deliriously violent but quiet thriller about Nicolas Cage’s ex-chef chasing down his stolen truffle pig. At one point, Cage’s character, Rob, a retired chef turned backwoods recluse, sits down in a ritzy haute cuisine restaurant and summons the chef, a former employee of his. Rob verbally slams Cage for giving up his dream of owning a cozy pub. “Every day, you wake up and there’ll be less of you,” Rob tells the chef, who looks gutted — but not like he disagrees. “You live your life for them, and they don’t even see you. You don’t even see yourself.”

Mark Mylod’s black, bloody comedic thriller The Menu plays out like a sequel to that scene, if the hapless high-end chef had decided to turn Rob’s revelation outward against his clientele instead of inward. The Menu mocks the kind of people who would eat at that restaurant Chef Rob despises, with its “emulsified scallops” and “foraged huckleberry foam, bathed in the smoke from Douglas fir cones.” But it also finds a little humanity in them as well. The best thing about the movie? The way the filmmakers make it possible to skewer everyone in sight.

Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Margot, a last-minute date for rich foodie obsessive Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), who’s secured a seating at an exclusive restaurant on a private island, headed by the renowned Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Margot doesn’t care about the kind of food that consists of a few artfully spaced blotches of sauce on a plate, billed as a cheeky “breadless bread course.” But Tyler is obsessive about Chef Slowik’s work, and the possibility of earning his attention and interest. They’re an odd couple from the start, with a strange tension between them that suggests secrets waiting to be revealed.

Image: Searchlight Pictures

They aren’t the only ones with secrets. Other diners at this dinner include a smug food critic (Janet McTeer), her sycophantic editor, (Paul Adelstein), a minor movie actor (John Leguizamo), and Aimee Carrero), a trio loud tech boors who begin the night by bragging about fraudulently paying for their dinner, and an older couple who believe they might recognize Margot. Then there’s Chef Slowik, who’s planned a dangerous “menu” for the evening designed to bring the secrets to light.

How far Chef Slowik is willing to go, and what’s going on with Margot, make up most of the complications in The Menu It might not work out that way. Instead, it could just be a grim and familiar revenge thriller, aimed at certain easy targets: rich, entitled people who are rude and self-satisfied. If there weren’t more going on under the surface, The Menu would risk coming across as a fancy version of one of those teen slashers that’s more about watching symbolically obnoxious, shallow young people getting mown down by a killer.

Instead, Seth Reiss and Will Tracy’s script doles out the revelations with a careful sense of pacing and escalation, keeping a balance of sympathies between victims and mastermind. They clearly don’t expect the audience to entirely throw in with the people paying $1,250 apiece for a minimalist dinner, mostly for bragging rights about the experience. They don’t leave their victims as ciphers, either. Margot naturally gets center stage, and Taylor-Joy gives her a fierce, brittle “I’m totally over this nonsense” energy that makes her a compelling protagonist. Hoult delivers a strong performance as a man forced to confront his pretensions in a particularly painful manner. But each character in turn gets a little stage time, including Chef Slowik’s dedicated assistant, Elsa (Hong Chau, fresh off The WhaleThe 2019 villain is most memorable, however. Watchmen series).

Fiennes is a great asset. Fiennes directs the action at his restaurant as a cult leader. He puts on a warm, benevolent smile when it suits the story and then brings a ruthless, cold psychopathy to the table for the rest of the scenes. Trying to guess what’s under his surface is one of the movie’s bigger challenges, and one of its biggest joys, mostly because he’s scripted and performed as a villain with a few sympathetic wrinkles, a man who courts empathy and evokes horror at the same time.

Chef Slowik whispers something into Tyler’s ear causing him to freeze up and begin to get teary eyed in fear

Image: Searchlight Pictures

The Menu This often reads as an extended version of a single set play. A group of people who are forced to be close together gradually crack under pressure and discover new things about them. A lot of what keeps it going isn’t that stagey energy, but the staging itself. production designer Ethan Tobman was inspired by everything from Luis Buñuel’s devastating 1962 film The Exterminating Angel (another film about smug elites who can’t escape each other) to German expressionist architecture. He and cinematographer Peter Deming give the film a harsh, punishing chilliness that emphasizes both the lack of comfort or warmth in haute cuisine and the state of Chef Slowik’s mind. It’s an appropriately sumptuous and sense-driven film, with something striking to look at in every frame.

The Menu doesn’t always add up, though. There’s a strange unwillingness to commit to the film’s Grand Guignol potential, likely out of a desire to keep the cast around for the final act. There’s a disconnect between Chef Slowik’s hatred of his guests and the level of their comparative crimes, some of which are far more personal and meaningful than others. The film’s contempt for arrogance and entitlement is straightforward and satisfying, but when other motives start driving the story, like Elsa’s jealousy over Margot or Chef Slowik’s rage over not having each of his dishes remembered, the revenge story curdles a bit.

Still, Reiss and Tracy’s willingness to implicate Chef Slowik along with his vain, surface-obsessed plan gives The Menu Some startling intrigue. Nicolas Cage, a pretentious chef calls in “in” PigSlowik created his own downfall and his own suffering. The Menu doesn’t let him off the hook by playing out as a straightforward eat-the-rich morality tale. This movie has a lot of humor, especially in the humorously wry course titles. But it’s a comedy as well as a horror-thriller. There’s some knuckle-biting tension as viewers wait to see how it’ll all play out, but Mylod and the writers also suggest that it’s worth chuckling a little at everyone involved, whether they’re serving up fancy versions of mayhem or just paying through the nose for it.

The Menu Nov. 18: Premieres in Theaters

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