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Thursday, Jun 20, 2024

Reel Critic: “The Menu”

“The Menu” serves moviegoers a not-so-subtle social commentary through intricate culinary dishes, a flavorful cast and a tight, tense setting. The film follows Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) as she accompanies her date, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), to an exclusive, elaborate dinner at Hawthorne, a restaurant on a private island. Hawthorne is run by militaristic head chef Julian (Ralph Fiennes), who lives and works on the island with a group of dedicated sous chefs. 

At $1,250 a ticket, Hawthorne attracts an elite clientele. The guests include new-money tech bros, a wealthy but unstable couple, an aging movie star and a snobby food critic. Chef Julian crafts decadent, elaborately styled dishes like oysters with caviar and seaweed scallops, served with a side of secrecy, satire, madness and murder. 

The movie is set almost entirely within the dining room, a location choice that creates a taut atmosphere. Hawthorne is an open kitchen, so dinner guests witness firsthand unusual rituals and dynamics. Eating at Hawthorne is about more than food; it’s billed as an “experience.” Before sitting down to dine, the guests are given a tour of the island where the chefs grow, smoke, ferment and prepare all the food. 

While the film has more nefarious undertones, it also jabs  at ridiculous, over-the-top food culture and the privilege of fine dining. Clearly, this grinding, sometimes shallow lifestyle has taken a toll on Chef Julian; he’s lost his initial joy of cooking and eating and is struggling to get it back. The plot moves at an engaging pace, full of surprising and often-grisly twists. The ending ultimately circles back to familiar themes of class conflict, but the journey there is bizarre and nail-biting. “The Menu” is also quite gory, as murder is on the menu, and characters lose their limbs and lives through Chef Julian’s twisted games. 

Margot is an interesting outsider at the restaurant. She was Tyler’s last-minute date, and while he is obsessed with the menu and idolizes Chef Julian, she is not afraid to be critical of the meal’s excessiveness. They are served a series of dipping sauces without anything to dip in  them, a “breadless bread course.” Blindly obedient to this food culture, Tyler is blown away by the ingenuity of the “dish,” while Margot boldly asks for bread (and is denied). As her complicated background and unusual relationship with Tyler are slowly revealed, she proves herself as the resourceful, grounding force of “The Menu.” 

Taylor-Joy is a highlight in this movie and a wonderful leading woman. She is well-matched with Fiennes, and their confrontations and discussions are full of electricity and tension. The privileged, out-of-touch supporting characters, including actors Judith Light and John Leguizamo, are also interesting and darkly funny. However, due to the nature of an ensemble cast, they are not afforded much depth, and it is a little puzzling how quickly they accept their fates. 

The food is a character within itself. The dishes are extravagantly presented and tweezed to perfection. Like cooking reality television shows, they are given close-ups and written descriptions. The film even hired a consulting chef, Dominique Crenn, of San Francisco’s Michelin-starred restaurant Atelier Crenn, who worked behind the scenes to lend an expert eye to the dishes. 

“The Menu” is an absurd, entertaining black comedy horror film that is definitely not for the faint of heart. Although the satire sometimes felt a little heavy-handed and outlandish, it’s hard not to appreciate its creativity and social bite. Its unique food-based premise is memorable enough that even after the credits roll, you’ll still be digesting “The Menu.” 

Charlie Keohane

Charlie Keohane ’24 (she/her) is an Editor at Large. She previously served as the SGA Correspondent and a Senior Writer.   

She is an environmental writing major and a psychology minor from Northern California. Outside of academics, Charlie is a Senior Admissions Fellow at the Middlebury Admissions Office. She also is involved with the women’s track team and hosts Witching Hour, a radio show on 91.1 WRMC. In Spring 2023, she studied abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, watching Greta Gerwig movies, polar plunging, sending snail mail, and FaceTiming her rescue dog, Poppy.