Dir: Mark Mylod. Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, Hong Chau, John Leguizamo, Janet McTeer. 15, 107 minutes.
Anti-capitalism is hot again. Or, I should say, hot, but served on a crunchy bed of pulpy violence and topped off with an ice-cold, liquid nitrogen-cooled, mousse of social satire. After Get Out skewered white guilt, Ready or Not poked holes in inherited wealth, and The Hunt tracked down liberal hypocrisy, the latest entrée to the burgeoning genre of class-conscious horror-comedy is Mark Mylod’s The Menu, which deftly fillets an array of targets, from culinary snobbery to performance art.
Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) are heading off on a boat, bound for an island where they will experience the tasting menu of a lifetime. Margot, it soon transpires, isn’t half as interested in the evening’s itinerary as her food-obsessed partner. “Don’t smoke, you’ll kill your palate,” Tyler instructs her. She rolls her eyes, but, after all, he is paying some $2,500 for this opportunity. And so they arrive at the island restaurant, Hawthorn, alongside fellow diners including John Leguizamo’s fading movie star and Janet McTeer’s snooty critic. They’re anticipating a dining experience like no other, and boy does the avant-garde chef, Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), deliver.
Fiennes plays Slowik as half cult leader, half Michelin-starred maestro; Heston Blumenthal experimenting with stirring cyanide into Kool-Aid. “Do not eat,” he commands his diners, but Fiennes himself is happy to grow fat on well-chomped scenery. Against him, Taylor-Joy’s Margot is a fairly shallow addition to cinema’s long history of “final girls”, the spunky female protagonists who always seem to make it to the climax of horror movies (throw in a pinch of the “hooker with a heart of gold” trope, in this cliché amuse-bouche). But both of them have such an other-worldly magnetism that, frankly, I’d be content to watch them read a menu.
Mylod, meanwhile, is a filmmaker with a fascinatingly diverse filmography. It began with 2002‘s Ali G Indahouse (which, as a teenager, I believed to be the height of comedy) and continued inauspiciously until, finally, serious kudos came his way thanks to his work on HBO’s prestige TV shows, Game of Thrones and Succession. Many directors from these blockbuster series have transferred their talents to the big screen (Thor 2’s Alan Taylor, for example, or Madame Web’s SJ Clarkson) but Mylod keeps things intimate. The visual panache is reserved for the glisten of roe atop an oyster, the sizzle of a patty on the grill, the beating of fists on reinforced glass.
The whole meal doesn’t entirely coalesce. The satire is rather scattershot, with victims ranging from gastro-snobs to tax havens, via angel investors, restaurant critics and (possibly incestuous) philanderers. Some viewers will be frustrated as the film reveals its secrets, and the deconstructed trifle looks more and more like a mess. But Fiennes’s performance, and the absurdist timbre of much of the script (“you’ll eat less than you desire,” whispers Hong Chau’s creepy maître d’, “and more than you deserve”), just about vindicate this maximalist approach. And the rather old-school decision to set the action in a single dining room, over a single night, on a deserted island somewhere geographically non-specific, keeps things from ever exceeding the bounds of their creator’s imagination.
The meal, one of the sous chefs announces ominously, needs “an ending that ties everything together conceptually”. That might be an ambition too far for Mylod’s horror-comedy. But like so many entries in this hybrid genre of late, it passes both ends of the generic test: unsettling enough to have audiences grimacing, funny enough to provide a few belly laughs. If the film’s raison d’etre is to show up the vapidity of modern art, then it produces no argument better than itself. Dumb but delicious, The Menu is a feast for the senses, if not the brain.
‘The Menu’ is in cinemas from 18 November