Elitism is a disease for which there is no cure. Despite the need for people to work towards the collective good of supporting one another, society has a tendency to try and hold rankings and create conflict out of those rankings based on wealth, power, and opportunity, resulting in humanity immersing itself into the throes of these ridiculous constructs of social hierarchy that elevate one individual over another. It’s a disease that also impacts how we view art, lifestyle, business, and politics, contributing to increased levels of human arrogance and self-satisfying entitlement. Which is why I’m grateful for a movie like The Menu that attacks this problem head on.
As a critic and human being, I know I have a tendency to fall into these patterns as well. We all do. It’s our job to evaluate “good art” from “bad art” instead of just appreciating art for what it is. And let’s be honest. That’s kind of BS. I’m as much an “expert” on film as any of you fine folks reading. But, that is why I absolutely appreciate the hell out of a movie like The Menu: a biting horror-comedy satire that reminds us about the dangers of entitlement, arrogance, and elitism. It’s a movie that shakes you and brings you back down to the reality of how and why elitism is such a danger to the human condition, and reminds us that we probably should be better.
Directed by Mark Mylod and written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, The Menu is about a group of upscale people going to an island for an exclusive elaborate private dinner from one of the world’s most renowned chefs, Julian Slowik. Among the chosen are an actor, executives from a powerful accounting firm, a pair of famous critics, a food influencer and his date, and a politician and his wife. As they arrive they’re greeted by an unsettling and bizarre cast of cult-like line cooks, sous chefs, and followers that cater to Slowik’s every beck and call like Unsullied soldiers. As the meal commences and each course is served, the night becomes increasingly more strange and certainly more sinister as secrets are revealed, and surprises are abundant.
To say any more would absolutely spoil the film, which is far more effective when you have no idea what it’s about and what’s going to happen. But much like the effort involved in creating a fine meal during an insane dinner rush, the pressure and tension build and build, along with the suspense as the movie progresses. You get so engrossed about who the guests and the chef are, and as answers get revealed, you can’t help but want to know more.
For me, The Menu is like Squid Games meets Ratatouille. And I know how insane that sounds, but the movie is insane. The film’s ability to satirize the class struggles between the 1% and everyday lower-middle class individuals, along with its high-stakes premise, evoke shades of the Netflix phenomenon. But the difference is The Menu doesn’t stop there. Like Ratatouille, it takes shots at snobbery and elitism when it comes to art and criticism, and the pressure to perform and perform for acceptance and success. It’s a film that unflinchingly speaks to the flaws and obnoxiousness of unearned entitlement, which is a relevant message for the world we live in today. And it does approach these subjects in a thrilling and darkly funny way.
From a performance perspective, the movie becomes a tense battle of wits and wills between its two standout performers: Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy. Fiennes is brilliantly effective and creepy as Slowik, but there’s also a sadness to him, and a wry, sick sense of humor as well. The character is incredibly bizarre. He’s not at all sympathetic. But he is complex and fascinating to say the least. If you feel any empathy for him at all, it’s because of the humanity Fiennes imbues in him. But I will say despite Fiennes efforts, it will be difficult to empathize or sympathize with this villain.
Taylor-Joy, on the other hand, is wily, brave, and tough as Margot, a character who is essentially in the wrong place at the wrong time. Margot is a perfect heroine for this type of movie, and you find yourself rooting for her during her triumphantly defiant moments. Taylor-Joy’s performance evokes a similar one to her character from Split and Glass, Casey Cooke. She has the makings of a traumatized survivor, and is able to separate herself from everyone else in the movie by being the only true character you feel anything for (her and perhaps Judith Light’s Anne).
Nicholas Hoult is also incredibly despicable, but also funny as Tyler; a self-indulgent, wannabe foodie who idolizes Slowik. Hoult has a talent for playing a character so slimy, and unabashedly unaware of how much of a tool he is, so it really is an inspired casting choice given what he did for the role of “Peter the III” in The Great. And Hong Chau also delivers an incredibly creepy and unhinged performance as Elsa, Slowik’s completely despicable right-hand. But if I’m going to be honest, the rest of the cast is sadly underused. I do love Judith Light and her performance, but she doesn’t get to do much. And neither do John Leguizamo, Janet McTeer, or really the rest of the ensemble. And it’s a bit of a pity, but I suppose I understand why. And it’s because, much like Willy Wonka’s victims, the characters here are all pretty horrible individuals.
Apart from Margot, the movie gives you no one to root for. And that is the point. It’s deeply cynical about the state of the world and humanity as a whole, and it’s not afraid to show it or hide that from anyone. And that’s the makings of a very gutsy movie, if not a bit of a downer. I like the movie a lot, but I can’t say I had a blast watching it, because, as smart and tense as it can be, it essentially just reaffirms truths that you simply have to login to Twitter to see: that people have a proclivity for elitist, arrogant, entitled, crappy behavior. We live in a world where people judge and disrespect you for liking movies they don’t like, or vice versa. We wade through pages upon pages of garbage from deeply racist, sexist, homophobic individuals because they think their thoughts are gold and there are no consequences to rubbing that rubbish in your face. We have a lot of wealthy individuals willing to setback basic science, logic, and peaceful ideas of tolerance simply because they want to back some clown who will help them pay less taxes. And in some ways you don’t want to see that on film because you see it all the time. But that being said, we need to see it. It’s the filmmakers’ catharsis about the current state of the world, come to life onscreen for us to commiserate with. And that makes The Menu such a bold, honest, and courageous film to see, and one you feel catharsis for watching as well.
It’s definitely the most clever horror film this year, and that’s a year that includes Barbarian. So for that reason, Reiss, Tracy, and Mylod should absolutely pat themselves on the back. But I suppose there’s also a part of me that was hoping it would be a bit funnier, in the tradition of a horror-comedy like Ready or Not. Alas, at while amusing and chuckle-worthy, the film firmly puts the disturbed social commentary horror first, and the comedy second. But thankfully it never once sacrifices character development and introspection of its two lead characters. And it ends up being very creepy! So from a horror movie standpoint, it really does a terrific job making you feel unsettled, and upping the suspense after each game-changing twist and escalation as the movie carries on.
Overall, The Menu is a crazy, disturbing, and witty horror comedy with a terrifically biting message at the center of it. It’s definitely not a movie that’s going to make you feel good about humanity, and it doesn’t always make the best use of its stacked cast. But it’s still an interesting, tense, and funny good time overall. In short, this is one meal you won’t be prepared for!
Overall Score: B