This special reward is available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 monthly levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. If they choose, they also get to include some of their thoughts about the movie. This Pick comes from Bekah Lindstrom.
The Menu (2022)
Written by Seth Reiss & Will Tracy
Directed by Mark Mylod
Horror is certainly a hot genre at the moment. Not since the 1970s has there been a more fruitful period for the genre. We have so many different styles & flavors of horror to choose from so that no matter what type of person you are, there’s something to pick from. The Menu represents a growing social satire horror that’s become more prevalent in recent years. It makes sense that this would be a burgeoning subgenre in the face of growing massive inequality in the West. Outside of horror, these themes of bringing the wealthy to heel & pointing out the many cases of abuse of the working class have picked up steam. Yet, I have to question when such an important topic becomes so embedded in popular culture. The main question I ask about these films is, “Is this a genuine expression of frustration on this issue from an authentic voice, or is this just a filmmaker/studio chasing a trend?”
The Menu begins on a pier. Margot (Anya-Taylor Joy) is waiting for a boat with her date Tyler (Nicholas Hoult). This boat will carry them to Hawthorn, an exclusive restaurant on a remote island owned/operated by celebrity chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). There are other guests: the snobbish food critic & her editor, a wealthy couple that regularly dines there, a washed-up movie star & his personal assistant, and a trio of investment bros who have made a fortune. Upon arriving, the guests are taken on a brief tour by the maître d, Elsa (Hong Chau), revealing some slightly strange things about how this restaurant works. Once dinner service begins, things get increasingly odd with each course until Julian’s ultimate plan is revealed. Margot observes as someone so different from all the other guests, the only one in the middle who gets a choice about which side she will choose to be on.
As the end credits rolled, I immediately thought that The Menu should write a thank you letter to Ari Aster. While Mark Mylod is a talented filmmaker in his own right, he is the showrunner of HBO’s Succession after all; The Menu is stylistically inspired by Aster’s two feature films. The score is composed by Colin Stetson, who also wrote the music for Hereditary (as well as The Color Out of Space, which is another incredible recent horror film), and it sounds like they asked him to make music in that same vein. The movie’s finale feels heavily derived from Aster’s conclusion to Midsommar, lacking the edge that the film embraced wholeheartedly. In The Menu, our protagonist does get a happily ever after type of ending, which is fine & works for what the film is attempting. It just felt underwhelming.
The Menu has a fantastic set-up and some enjoyable performances. This is a straight-down-the-line three-out-of-five-star movie if ratings are your thing. It’s not a film that I’ll think much about years later, but it was an entertaining watch that threw a few surprises my way. The concept is excellent, a fancy restaurant with a head chef who has clearly lost his mind (and apparently formed a cult with his staff?). I appreciate that the movie doesn’t get too direct with its exposition, never explicitly explaining what is going on with the restaurant staff. We’re all familiar with Jonestown; we know what is happening here. Yet, there are other places where the script spells out things too directly, which diminished my enjoyment.
It’s sort of impossible not to talk about Ari Aster’s particular style when discussing this movie because it’s so clearly influenced by his films. The premise of The Menu & Midsommar can be described as “a young woman goes to a remote location where she witnesses the people doing strange, often violent things. Her date/boyfriend proves to be a worthless dude, people are set on fire, and the girl is spared from this because the people in the location have a strange respect for her.” The Menu is heavier on more overt humor where Midsommar is dripping with Aster’s dry wit. Even the burning sequence at the end has music that immediately made me think of Midsommar. Midsommar didn’t invent cultish folk horror, but it is the most recent film in modern memory to do so successfully and become part of popular culture. It would be silly to pretend the filmmakers weren’t influenced by it when there are a lot of structural parallels.
One area where I liked that the film proved me wrong was in Nicholas Hoult’s casting. It’s hard for me to see him as anything other than a pretty boy, but here he reminded me why he keeps getting work. Tyler is simultaneously the biggest asshole in the world & a complete psychopath. The former becomes apparent earlier in the film, and the latter is this wonderful comedic/horror note. As the other guests react with disgust & astonishment at what the chef lays out before them, Tyler never skips a beat. He is a true foodie to a degree of complete insanity. Hoult manages to play it a little campy so that his performance will get some laughs, but he’s ultimately such a messed up, disturbed individual. Seeing Hoult in this role made me interested to see him in more films like this.
The most significant difference between The Menu and Midsommar lies in our protagonist, Margot. While Midsommar’s Dani comes to the community of Harga following a profoundly traumatic loss, Margot doesn’t have a fascinating arc, in my opinion. The nature of her and Tyler’s relationship is a surprise that takes the story in an interesting direction, but outside of plot twists, I don’t think she’s that compelling of a figure to put at the center of this story. Because Margot is an outsider, it makes her a relevant audience surrogate, she discovers things at the same pace we do, but when we get to know her as a character, the film doesn’t do much with it. I also found the scene where Julian says Margot looks working class, and she stood out from the other guests to be a bit ludicrous. Anya Taylor-Joy has never struck me as someone who looks down to Earth & middle class. She’s a very glamorous-looking person and looks that way in this movie. Other actresses would have made that line more believable, but Taylor-Joy was likely cast because of her adjacency to edgy, arthouse-ish films.
Overall, The Menu is a sharp little satire. I don’t think anyone will be particularly wowed by what it does, but it has many funny moments that will keep you engaged in the story. It does have some plot beats that did not work for me, but that’s to be expected with most movies. The concept is such a core part of how the picture works that more energy is put into pulling off this grand guignol of a dinner as a form of a spectacle than in making sure every character feels authentic. This is much more a satire than trying to be a dark horror picture, meaning things get somewhat cartoonish at points. If you have HBO Max, I would say it’s worth the watch because you’ve paid for it. If The Menu doesn’t sound like your thing, I wouldn’t seek it out. I don’t think you’ll get much out of it in that case.