Monday, November 21, 2022

The Menu – horrific home truths served with a side of humiliation

Twelve guests travel by boat to Hawthorne* Island to experience an intense evening of fine dining. The kitchen staff and chef Julian Slowik live on the island in relative isolation, a cult-like group with military discipline. The bespoke menu turns out to be quite punishing to digest, full of crunchy home truths, and most courses served with a side of humiliation.

The Menu quickly establishes the sense that the chef (Ralph Fiennes) has lost respect for his high value paying guests who crave the exclusivity. The bread plate wheeze is conceptual and signals that the customer is not always right on Hawthorne. But it’s not until the fourth course – sous chef Jeremy’s The Mess – that the evening reaches the tipping point between very unsettling and totally horrific last supper.

At times, Peter Deming’s cinematography is reminiscent of shows like First Dates, with the camera peering into conversations around a particular table while other diners carry on in the background. That’s matched with shots that show off the sleek architectural lines of the restaurant. A lot of horror (for example, the ‘change of ownership’) happens at a distance; close-ups aren’t necessary to disquiet.

The Menu places fine dining onto the grill to sear. At a surface level, it’s about culinary artistry becoming the pursuit of the privileged few who place it on a pedestal and have no interest – or skill – to try and cook anything for themselves. It’s about the gap between service industry workers and their customers. It examines self-worth and depression. But there’s also a strong strand that judges people’s flaws – whether commercial, ethical or relational – and asks if they can ever own up to what’s wrong.

As the dining experience heats up, there’s a gradual increase in the amount of honesty – a wedding ring falls to the ground, symbolic of a customer’s infidelity – while the customers seem quietly resigned to their fate and don’t descend into hysteria despite the inevitable build-up to a grotesque final course.

Nicholas Hoult plays Tyler, a young foodie who, alone amongst the diners, was fully aware of what was to come when he stepped onto the island. His date, Margot, a late change of plan that threatens to upset the restaurant’s preparations, is soon seen as a kindred spirit by the chef. Anya Taylor-Joy revels in her central role, the outsider – a proxy for the cinema audience – eyeing up monstrous diners and seeing through the multiple levels of betrayal long before the more snobbish customers.

The Menu is a slow-burning satirical horror movie. The greatest jump-scare is someone clapping their hands together. But there is still plenty of karma being served out while blood is smattered about the island before dessert is served. You’ll find it being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre and most other local cinemas.

* Whether it’s Hawthorn or Hawthorne with an ‘e’ is a mystery, with one used in the film, but the other appearing in the producer’s online content!

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