An elite, motley crew assembles for a very special dinner in the deliciously dark thriller satire "The Menu," a philosophical deconstruction of artists and their enablers. Written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, of "Succession" and "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver," and directed by Mark Mylod, who has made his name in prestige television, directing episodes of "Game of Thones" and "Succession," "The Menu" is a tightly wound, sharply rendered skewering of the dichotomy between the takers and the givers, or in this case, the eaters and the cooks.
The recipe for "The Menu" is: one filet of bloody class warfare a la "Ready or Not," a dash of cultish folk horror in the vein of "Midsommar," a puree of "Chef's Table," dusted with a sprinkling of "Pig," spritzed with an essence of "Clue." We go along for this ride through the point of view of a classic Final Girl, the spunky, sarcastic and street-smart Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), a late addition to the guest list who is an unexpected and unpredictable element in the sauce.
The restaurant is Hawthorne, located on a remote island, the chef is Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). The guests include a food critic (Janet McTeer) and her editor (Paul Adelstein), a group of finance guys (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, and Mark St. Cyr), a diehard fan (Nicholas Hoult), a movie star (John Leguizamo) and his assistant (Aimee Carrero), and a pair of regulars (Reed Birney and Judith Light). The group submits themselves to the culinary experience they are about to have at the hands of Chef Slowik, his cult of sous chefs and his stern hostess, Elsa (Hong Chau).
At first it all seems so painfully pretentious as the guests are served up dishes such as "The Island" (a scallop perched atop a rock) and the "Unaccompanied Accompaniments," which takes deconstruction to a whole new level. Then, the menu becomes a walk down memory lane for Chef Slowik, taking a turn toward the uncomfortably personal, then accusatory, shocking, aggressive and violent.
The central metaphor is plainly obvious. "The Menu" is not about food, or eating, but about the consumption of art, as well as the forces the artists find themselves subjected to while attempting to create. Chef Slowik has sold his soul for success, subjecting himself to the whims of the big money investors, the critics, the celebrities, his mindless consumers and worst of all, his fanboys, who think they know more than the experts and are willing to meddle too (the fanboys get it worst of all here). That's not to say that Chef Slowik is the victim. No, he's the antagonist here, but Fiennes plays him as a tortured soul who is attempting to reckon -- violently -- with his own selling out, and takes no pleasure in the process.
Reiss and Tracy have borrowed the increasingly pretentious and over-the-top world of high-end dining experiences to craft a screenplay that feels like an exorcism of sorts; a cathartic primal scream about the state of the industry of art, be it film, television, literature, visual art or food. The artist, despite his or her inclinations or inspirations, is always beholden to the critics, the investors and the fans, and "The Menu" is both a violent rejection of that paradigm, as well as a darkly humorous acceptance of it all.
Mylod has taken this script, which is a wordy, writerly existential crisis, and presented it to us with a slick, somewhat cold presentation. The acting is flawless, Peter Deming's cinematography crisp, Colin Stetson's jaggedy score appropriately unsettling. If the outre ending jumps the shark, well, it was earned -- the satisfying "The Menu" has already left us much to chew on.