Mark Mylod’s thriller is deliciously taut
Social messages are imbued in most films nowadays, but the horror genre seems to be the one most suited to bring it about. This has become increasingly popular after the success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) and Us (2019) and has bled into thrillers and mysteries such as with Knives Out (2019). The latest to bring about a successful surface-level thrill mixed sociological exploration is The Menu (2022).
The Menu takes place at the fancy high-end restaurant Hawthorne, which is located on a remote island. We follow Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is the relatively normal and last-minute guest of the snobbish Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and stands out amongst the other twelve bizarre guests dining that night. Her unexpected appearance might scupper the ulterior plans of the Chef, Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), who had planned to get his guests more involved in the menu than they expected.
The Menu is directed by Mark Mylod, who cut his teeth in television with such hit shows as Succession (2018-), Game of Thrones (2011-2019), and Shameless (2011-2021). Mylod works off an entirely original script by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy. The Menu is a deconstruction of the wealthy elites and the machinations of oppressive capitalism. The film is fascinated with how humanity will watch and play along to a ridiculing farce, all in the name of status and power. The script tightly reflects this, and Mylod ably plays off the surface level story with the undercurrent themes successfully. This is no easy feat, as Mylod must craft tension and believable character arcs within the juicier commentary that the film is otherwise clearly bursting to spell out.
With an original and daring concept as in The Menu, it can be easy to build up mystery and tension only to botch the reveal or finale. The Menu was taking some big swings through its second act, but the risk largely pays off as the central characters of Margot and Chef Slowik get in-depth character arcs that made the cooking of a cheeseburger seem emotional. This is largely thanks to the spectacular duo of performers in Taylor-Joy and Fiennes. The young actress is proving to be an indominable force as she takes over our screens both in cinemas and our living rooms. Likewise, Fiennes continues to be an expert and omnipresent figure in cinemas. Despite not having blown up like other film stars, Fiennes has been able to achieve a longevity and constant level of quality work that would make any other actor jealous. In The Menu, Mylod recognizes that his two lead actors are masters at acting through their eyes, and thus it is the internal change and turmoil that Taylor-Joy and Fiennes relish and expound to great effect.
The Menu, however, suffers from having rather cardboard supporting characters, to the point that they never evolve from simple caricatures. This robs the film of a greater complexity and clash of emotions towards its finale, where the conceptual criticism could have met the human side of the characters. This superficiality towards the supporting characters helps bring out moments of dark humor, but it also makes their fate within Chef Slowik’s master plan seem unimportant.
In the end, The Menu is another rather compelling and though-provoking thriller/horror using its genre as a coat for a larger social commentary. The curated script and adept direction help present a balanced setting for which the dueling levels of the narrative to play around in. The two lead performances from Taylor-Joy and Fiennes help give an added emotion towards the film’s finale. However, a largely clichéd supporting cast brings down the surrounding depth and complexity that would have elevated this film to greater heights.