What would you give to have the best dinner in the world? That’s the question The Menu, a new film from director Mark Mylod, seeks to unravel. Would you make the pilgrimage to a tiny isolated island, throw your lot in with just a dozen other diners for the evening, and shell out more than $1,000 per person for the experience? Would you endure the terrifying coolness of the head chef as he describes how you’ll consume “entire ecosystems” during the course of that coveted meal, itself a sea of foams and gels and emulsions? And as The Menu reveals itself to be a sharp, biting critique of the restaurant industry masquerading as a stringent, slow-burning horror film, the question — initially rooted in a certain kind of foodie bucket-list strategy — becomes much more sinister: Are you so willing to consume the world’s finest foods that you’d put your life on the line?
The film, which stars Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, and Ralph Fiennes, who plays the harrowingly intense chef Julian, takes clear inspiration from the familiar narratives surrounding “prestige food”: Transition scenes, styled to look like menu cards that introduce each course, are a clear nod to Chef’s Table. The dishes look just like the intricately composed plates you’d see at Noma; that likely has something to do with the involvement of chef Dominique Crenn, who lent her expertise as the film’s culinary consultant. The first course, an assemblage of sea plants, rocks, and “barely frozen filtered sea water,” is apparently such a moving analog that overly enthusiastic foodie Tyler (Hoult) weeps at its beauty as his date, Margot (Taylor-Joy), looks on in disgust.
At its core, The Menu is an extremely dark comedy that examines how class functions in the dining room, among both the people serving and those being served. The restaurant’s privileged patrons, hand-selected by Julian for their proximity to wealth and power, are obvious vehicles for that critique — there’s an actor (played by John Leguizamo), a politician and his wife, and a group of obnoxious tech bros celebrating a birthday. They’re all hiding secrets and indiscretions that chef Julian is somehow aware of, and has chillingly laser-etched onto tortillas for eating alongside a dish of chicken al pastor. In this moment, the patrons — and the viewers — realize that something seriously sinister is afoot.
The Menu indulges in how the hospitality industry caters to the rich — and the kind of entitlement that has bred among those diners. The central plot involves Julian, a familiar type of tyrant in the kitchen, who extends his ruthless reign into the dining room, pushing his guests to increasingly extreme levels of discomfort. He denies them food. He shames them for their wealth. He watches as his VIP guests — who are unfamiliar with any kind of maltreatment in their lives, much less this extreme, performative cruelty — struggle to fathom what is happening to them. Once it becomes clear that no amount of exclaiming “Do you know who I am?” is going to save them from Julian’s planned horrors, the guests shift focus to trying to figure out how to make it through the night alive. As viewers, we’re squirming in our own seats, vacillating between rooting for Julian as he puts a bunch of bratty VIPs in their place and the creeping feeling that he’s gone too far: Fiennes plays chef Julian coolly, with a terrifying undercurrent of simmering rage.
In one course simply called “the Mess,” the mental and physical toll of working under a chef like Julian is explored in especially brutal fashion. The film also gestures to the prevalence of sexual harassment within the industry, including a scene where a woman who refused Julian’s advances is allowed to exact brutal vengeance on his body. It’s the kind of revenge scenario that workers who have been abused by their bosses and coworkers might fantasize about to some extent. But it’s a discomfiting and tense moment, one that questions whether there is actually a way to meaningfully make up for that kind of violence, and one that takes place in full view of the dining room, where guests are expected to continue eating their dinner. The scene feels like an especially pointed critique of the way that the restaurant industry uses stunning spaces and beautiful dishes as a way to hide its abuses.
We know that working in a kitchen can be physically, and mentally, dangerous, but rarely are we confronted with the visceral consequences of that danger. More than that, we often ignore the ways in which restaurant owners and chefs collude to hide those dangers in an effort to keep their diners happy, protect their buddies, and of course, make money. The Menu confronts that reality in a way that feels both obvious and fresh: as the only reasonable conclusion in an industry where workers are deeply undervalued.
Fiennes plays Julian as a product of his ego, crushed by his own expectations and insistence on seeking validation via good reviews and the cash of monied diners. There are points in the film where you almost feel sorry for him, knowing that he’s actually much more pitiful than petrifying, but then he goes back to torturing his patrons in increasingly despicable ways and the feeling of sympathy dissipates. And as for those patrons, don’t be surprised to see parts of yourself in these characters. Anyone who’s ever spent too much money on a fancy dinner has probably said something as annoying and pretentious as any of Tyler’s best lines, and any “foodie” has been guilty of caring more about the way their food tastes than how the people who grow and butcher and prepare it are treated.
By the time the night ends, the fates of the guests are sealed; the ending is funnier than it is frightening, and an excellent cap on nearly two hours of anxiety and panic. The Menu is as much a comedy as it is a horror film, one that anyone who’s ever worked in the restaurant industry will likely appreciate. Who among us hasn’t wanted to take matters into our own hands with an especially annoying customer? And who among us “foodies” hasn’t been one of them?