by Jacob Wingate-Bishop
The Menu is, in short, a culinary horror centred on a group of rich, disparate diners, who are invited to a dinner prepared by Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), a world-renowned chef. The mysterious culinary genius is the head of a remote, island-bound restaurant, and as the guests take their seats at the table, the courses grow more unsettling, disturbing, and soon the lines between theatrical craft and senseless violence are blurred. Bon appetit.
With a film like this, it’s easy to fall into tried-and-tested cliché, yet the plot remains largely elusive for its two-hour runtime. It’s a worn-out phrase, but you really are left guessing as to Slowik’s motive at every turn, unsure of his monologues which grow more cryptic, more unsettling with each bite. His brigade of devout chefs follow him like a god, and a stare from those cold, lifeless eyes is enough to bring an aspiring chef to tears.
There’s enough convention of genre in The Menu to prove delectably moreish; without giving too much away, we’re witnesses to the head chef’s strange fascination of the menu and the human mind becoming one; with every diner part of the menu in their own, special way. Fiennes’ conjures up images of Hopkins in Red Dragon, without overstepping the line. There are elements of the more recent Squid Game, and Netflix adaptation of Alice in Borderland, in terms of imaginative displays of violence.
Fiennes gives an outstanding performance as the enigmatic and obsessive Chef Slowik, at once enamoured with the culinary world and abhorred with it. As the courses of the film’s title diminish, Fiennes shows us that, whilst he’s a fantastic actor in whichever role he sets his mind to, he masters the banality of evil above all.
But really, it’s a team effort that drives this picture to possibly the pinnacle of modern-day horror. Anya Taylor-Joy plays a conflicted Margot – out of place among the culinary elite – masterfully; we’re able to project ourselves onto her, without the character coming across as a bland, vacant void. Nicholas Hoult is the obsessive Slowik acolyte, Janet McTeer is every inch the prestigious food critic, and John Laguizamo inhabits a larger-than-life movie star at the very end of his career. Everyone proves delicious in their roles, which seem as if created with no other screen presence in mind.
To call The Menu a ‘black comedy’ is perhaps a touch generous on the humour. It’s used sparingly, but to satisfying – often exquisite – effect. Like the gourmet menu of Slowik’s, every element and ingredient of the film moves like wondrous clockwork, exciting the senses and honed perfectly to fit the watcher’s palette. Compared to most horror films, The Menu is more of an experience than a movie, and it does so without ambiguity nor pretension.
With movies like 1991’s Delicatessen and more recent Flux Gourmet, director Mark Mylod’s latest may be proof at last to establish ‘food horror’ as its own category of film. If that’s the case, then The Menu may just be the Alien of this newfound genre.