Hawthorn is an epicurean’s wet dream. To dine at this restaurant, around which Mark Mylod’s stylishly directed feature The Menu revolves, one must make a reservation several months in advance and fork over $1,250 per person. The eatery is run by stern, world-renowned Chef Slowik (played with quiet severity by Ralph Fiennes) and is located on a remote island somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Their tasting menu changes seasonally, based on both the whims of its progenitor and the land. The restaurant only seats a dozen people. There are no cellphones allowed. They do not take solo diners.
What kind of person wants — or more accurately can afford — to dine at this fine establishment? The filthy rich, of course — the self-absorbed and ghoulish figures for whom it’s impossible to summon an ounce of good will. The Menu gorges on the blunders of these personalities and savors their humiliation. This is a vengeful dark comedy that probes percolating class anxieties (a popular theme in cinema lately). It indulges in opportunities to strip the emperor of his clothes, and while that doesn’t necessarily translate to the most revelatory social commentary, it does make for an amusing ride.
The Bottom Line
Rich and savory.
Mylod is best known for his television direction — Shameless, Game of Thrones and most recently Succession (for which he’s nabbed an Emmy nomination) — but he’s not new to film. His earlier projects The Big White (in 2005) and What’s Your Number (in 2011) are mostly forgotten, but with The Menu, a movie that flaunts a sharp vision, the director makes an exciting, confident return to film.
Written by Willy Tracy (Sucession) and Seth Reiss (Late Night with Seth Myers), The Menu follows Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), an insufferable epicurean, and his date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), a woman shrouded in mystery, for dinner at Hawthorn. They are among the restaurant’s 12 guests, who also include a never named actor trying to resuscitate his career (John Leguizamo) and his unhappy assistant, Felicity (Aimee Carrero); Lillian Bloom, a delusional restaurant critic (Janet McTeer), and her spineless editor, Ted (Paul Adelstein); Anne (Judith Light) and Richard (Reed Birney), a wealthy couple; and Bryce (Rob Yang), Soren (Arturo Castro) and Dave (Mark St. Cyr), a trio of obnoxious tech bros whose boss is Hawthorn’s main investor; and a mystery person I won’t spoil here.
An efficient but unhurried introduction sketches each character enough for us to understand the outlines of their personalities. Everyone, except for Margot, shares a reality of wealth, access and privilege. When we meet the pair, Tyler is admonishing Margot for smoking cigarettes, insisting that she will char her tastebuds. Margot doesn’t care: She can’t relate to Tyler’s reverence of expensive culinary experiences, and finds his devotion humorous.
On the island, the group is met by Elsa (a transfixing Hong Chau), the stoic leader of Chef’s crew and the closest person he has to an advisor. She gives them a tour of the grounds, starting with the coast: Cinematographer Peter Deming’s camera luxuriates in the location’s aquatic life with close shots of crabs crawling over driftwood and washed-up algae. Further inland, the environment becomes more coniferous, with towering trees, verdant grass and plump bushes. The island is self-sustaining — fish are procured from the sea, vegetables harvested from the garden, meat slaughtered from the domestic stock.
The Menu is structured around Hawthorn’s tasting menu, and the film’s arresting visual language is reflected in the meals, which are each presented with brief, witty title cards. Elsa leads the diners to the main dining room — a steely open-concept kitchen that flirts with a brutalist aesthetic — after the tour. In Ethan Tobman’s clean-cut production design, grays and cold blues dominate the color palette. The orange from the fireplace lining the walls and the kitchen’s open flames merely add an illusion of warmth.
The guests are seated. The servers push their chairs in and lay napkins on their laps. A chipper sommelier floats through the room offering aged reds and chilled whites. When Chef materializes to greet his captive audience, the buzz dies and eyes settle on him. His introduction is a poetic recitation of his food philosophy. There are sinister undertones, but the enamored diners don’t realize they are caught in a malefic game of cat-and-mouse until the second course (raw diver scallop, pickled local seaweeds and algae). By that time, it’s too late.
Tension builds with the courses, each more outlandish than the last. Tracy and Reiss’ slick, inventive screenplay pokes fun at the stresses of culinary life without cheapening the level of creativity and trust it takes to serve high-caliber meals each night. Collin Stetson’s score — imposing, nail-biting, swelling — further immerses us in the Hawthorn kitchen’s spell.
But the basic conclusions drawn from the depiction of class tensions threaten to unravel this otherwise tightly wrought story about the pressure-cooker conditions created by capitalism and its inconsistent application. Those who aren’t rich can’t afford to get off the hamster wheel. The Menu teases a more subtle, mordant analysis than it ultimately delivers with its over-reliance on the Chef’s rhapsodic, overly expository speeches.
Myod’s film is strongest when it focuses on process, and portrays just how the staff sautés, cures, ferments, measures, flavors, garnishes and obsessively constructs each dish. In those moments, executing a tasting menu begins to resemble the spectacle of theater: There are high stakes, bigger egos and an endless pursuit of an ephemeral feeling.