news ‘The Menu’ Review: Anya Taylor-Joy Crosses Kitchen Knives with Ralph Fiennes

What kind of movie is this we’re watching?

It can be one of the most exciting experiences in moviegoing when you’re asking yourself that question. You’ll ask yourself that a number of times during Mark Mylod’s “The Menu,” a movie that combines several genres in the cinematic equivalent of fusion cuisine: it’s a satire, then a thriller, and ultimately a horror movie. Its screenwriters, Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, had this script land on the 2019 Black List, and it’s easy to see why: with its trapped diners premise and evisceration of those with power, it’s like “The Exterminating Angel” for the franchise era.

Deep-pocketed foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) takes new girlfriend Margot (Anya-Taylor Joy) on a trip to an ultra-exclusive restaurant, Hawthorne, that’s on a private island. It’s a suitably foreboding place. Dead trees killed by saltwater on the eroding beach have their gnarled trunks shoot up through the sand. The culinary staff at the restaurant sleep on site in barracks-like living quarters, rows of cots lined up next to each other: after all, they have to rise early to harvest, fish, or slaughter that day’s future meals for maximum freshness. Their personal lives and individual identities have been subsumed into a kind of kitchen cult, the restaurant itself designed with the modernism-meets-minimalism effect of the house in “Parasite.”

Mind you, all of this is presented to the 12 guests invited for this one very special meal as if it were a selling point. Look at their dedication! They’re doing this all for you. No wonder it’s worth $1,250 a seat.

The idea of strangers taking a boat to an island where they’ll soon be bonded in an experiment with terror is an old trope, from Agatha Christie to William Castle. But it’s fun what a slow burn “The Menu” is while you’re trying to figure out what’s really going on. Hoult’s Tyler is so obsessed with food and so reverent of Ralph Fiennes’ Chef Slowik, who rules this island like Jim Jones in a kitchen apron, that he comes across like a cultist. There’s nothing he won’t pay, no levels of obsequiousness and humiliation to which he won’t sink, to prove he’s a true devotee of the culinary arts. Hoult, one of today’s actors most fearless when it comes to being unappealing (whether as the vain prigs he’s played in “The Favourite” or on “The Great”), continues his self-effacing streak, this time as a self-flagellating doofus committed to using awkward foodie lingo such as “mouth feel.” He’s a potent parody of a culture in which exclusivity and one-of-a-kind experiences are fetishized to an unhealthy degree.

In this kind of set up, with so many characters, each have to be defined by one or two traits alone to stick out — things that will express themselves in how they deal with the growing crisis of their situation. Here there’s the food critic (Janet McTeer) who purrs with glee when Chef Slowik serves a breadless bread plate, with just the dipping sauces — “Fiendish!” she declares; John Leguizamo as a movie star prepping for a reality show on food; Reed Birney as a wealthy regular at Hawthorne who’s been cheating on his wife (Judith Light); and three banking bros. By the time something unsavory from each character’s past is embossed on personalized tortillas sent to each one, you know some judgment is going to be served with each of the next courses. “Mulholland Drive” cinematographer Peter Deming’s character floats among the diners, unifying them all as the passive collective they are — as the portents of doom mount, why don’t they fight back more than they do?

Fiennes’ chef speaks softly and slowly, with the unblinking inner calm of someone who knows all this is going to play out, has allowed no room for error, and has accepted the consequences. What’s less clear is how he got his whole kitchen staff so completely behind his mission. It’s one of those things that could use elaboration, that could really say something about the nature of cults (in this increasingly cultish time), about why people gravitate to power even when it doesn’t serve their own interests. But “The Menu” chooses to accept these things as a given. This is a thriller, not a character study, and it’s easier for both kitchen staff and patrons to be types, like constants in an equation that ultimately expresses the desired narrative endgame.

The only variable? Taylor-Joy’s Margot, who we quickly learn was not intended to be Tyler’s original date. Could have fooled us, given how lovey-dovey she seems to be with him at first. But the fact that she’s an unexpected guest introduces an element Chef Slowik didn’t account for. For her part, Taylor-Joy delivers her most arresting performance yet as the only truly multi-dimensional character here. She sees through Tyler’s nonsense right away and quietly rebels against the whole thing from the start, when it’s merely the pretension that offends her and not yet the murderous grandiosity. She doesn’t buy into the situation, while everyone else is more than willing to, at least at first. And she projects an intelligence, staring down Tyler in disbelief, or calling out the chef for his self-righteous egotism, that’s like she’s capable of seeing the underlying code of the Matrix. Actors and actresses are always there to be looked at. Those that often ascend to the next level return the gaze and actually look back — so much of this movie is Taylor-Joy just looking at all of this in disbelief.

One wishes “The Menu” said more. But it would need richer, more fully developed characters in addition to Margot. You want to learn more about why Chef Slowik came to let grievance dominate his life the way it has. But it’s just too thinly sliced to make any kind of indictment against our rising vendetta culture, in which holding grudges and settling old scores is the primary driver of satisfaction, practically a whole economy. Yet “The Menu” does do one thing exceptionally well: it holds your attention and makes you think for a time that any outcome is possible. That alone is something to salivate over.

Grade: B​

“The Menu” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released by Searchlight Pictures on November 18.