Horror stories have always been bound up with food: Vampires drink blood, zombies eat brains, and a hell of a lot of monsters eat babies. Food is something that ties us to the earth and makes us aware of our mortality, since we die if we go very long without it. Fear accompanies the idea that we’ll ingest something gross, or that something gross will ingest us.
Recently, though, movies have gone whole hog on using food for horror. I saw The Menu and Bones and All back-to-back with the briefest of dinner breaks in between, which made for a strange day. (I would say they offered “food for thought” or it was hard to digest the films, but that would be cliché.) They’re not really horror movies: Bones and All is more of a teen romance, and The Menu, which comes out this week, is a satire on art that uses haute cuisine as its metaphor.
Anya Taylor-Joy plays Margot Mills, a woman whose boyfriend Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) has invited her to dinner at Hawthorn, a super-exclusive Noma-meets-El Bulli establishment headed by Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) on a rocky Pacific Northwestern island. She shows up in a mood to make fun of the deconstructed dishes with foams and gels, and isn’t even fazed when the chef follows her into the ladies’ room to threaten her life over her jokes. What does faze her is when the sous chef (Adam Aalderks) walks into the middle of the dining area and shoots himself in the head. Maybe most disturbing is that Tyler does not react, continuing to eat as the line cooks strew fresh rosemary around the corpse before taking it away. More carnage ensues, and Tyler turns to Chef Julian and asks about his tea: “Is this bergamot I’m getting?” Good thing Margot’s dressed inappropriately for the occasion, with combat boots under her evening gown, because she’ll have to fight her way out of this.
Okay, molecular gastronomy is a low-hanging target for writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy. It would have been better parodied 20 years ago, though I did laugh out loud during the scene in a kitchen when Margot is attacked by the restaurant’s knife-wielding hostess (Hong Chau) and hits her with a Pacojet. Tastier stuff — gah, I have to stop doing that — comes from the characterization of the 10 other dinner guests that evening, which include a faded movie star (John Leguizamo), a famous food critic (Janet McTeer) who’s over the molecular gastronomy trend, some finance bros who are there to drink, and a couple of regular customers (Reed Birney and Judith Light) who have dined at Hawthorn 11 times and can’t remember a single thing they’ve eaten.
Tyler’s peculiar brand of cultural snobbery — he dismisses fans of sports, music, and movies as “idiots” while chefs “play with the building blocks of life itself” — is captured well. Chef Julian murders his own main investor in front of his guests, and one of the finance guys says, “He kept you open through Covid, you ungrateful bastard!” Reacting to it all is Taylor-Joy, who has acquired a pinpoint sense of comic timing that makes Margot’s one-liners sound better than they are. (Hearing the $1,250 price per head for the dinner, she asks, “Are we eating a Rolex?”)
Director Mark Mylod and the writers have all worked on TV’s Succession, and they keep things moving at a decent clip. Ultimately, my gut tells me (sorry) that The Menu isn’t the great satire that it aims to be, but it is a joke that unspools well and pays off satisfyingly. That’s enough to make this film a delightful amuse-bouche.
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Fiennes. Directed by Mark Mylod. Written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy. Rated R.