The response to this film has largely focused on its skewering of “foodie” culture and/or, more generally, the wealthy. It’s about how these silly rich people don’t understand what they’re doing and pay enormous sums of money for nonsense food. It’s about how performative the food culture is. It’s about how performative the world of the super rich is.
I think that’s a bit off. This is a film about the culture of blindly following whatever “thought leaders” tell us. That we respect people based on money (Richard and Anne), “artistic talent” (Chef Slowik), fame (George), or industry clout (the finance bros and critics) is another issue but it’s not what’s central to the film. The film is, at its core, about Chef Slowik, his diabolical plan, and how “Margot” is able to survive, which is not as much about class (Slowik is, after all, wealthy himself) or the “givers vs. takers” dynamic he presents (his employees are, after all, victims of his plan as well). It’s about her ability to see through his bullshit that everyone else accepts because of his position.
Chef Slowik presents himself as something of a gentleman hero of the working class, but he’s actually a maniacal cult leader. His brigade is forced to work 16-hour days under his rule, with almost no contact with the outside world, and no privacy from him or each other. They sleep in bunks in a common barracks and have common bathrooms apart from Chef Slowik. This is all straight out of a cult leader’s playbook: sleep deprivation, setting himself apart from them, and forcing them to give up their selves (i.e., their outside contacts and indeed individual identities). He is setting up his depraved performance art piece using them as chess pieces after he has broken them down into accepting their roles within it and seeing him as a god-like figure. He is following the Jim Jones playbook to a T. He’s using food culture and its world of “sustainable X” and “farm raised Y” as the same hook for which Jones used racial integration decades ago.
And while our final girl may escape this time, that doesn’t change the fact that Slowik is in fact a monster. He wants to kill George not because of his celebrity or money but because he didn’t like one of his movies. He may allow one of his brigade to stab him in the leg for having (apparently unsuccessfully) forced himself on her, but he does so knowing that she will die with him in a few hours and having spent months breaking her to this purpose. The customers who are the victims we see the most may be far from pristine and pure, but he is still the monster he appears to be at first glance.
The fact that his self-justification is nonsense and his character is every bit what he first appears exemplifies one of this film’s unusual strengths: it stays so conventional that it creates tension in the audience. We keep expecting there to be a shocking twist, but it never happens. We keep expecting to find out that someone here isn’t what they appear (and, no, Margot doesn’t count–we know she’s not one of these people right from the start, even if we don’t know the details), but they keep confirming our priors. We keep expecting a heroic rescue or rebellion, but everyone in the end just plays their role in Slowik’s play. The lack of surprise is, in its own way, surprising.
Cinematographer Peter Deming has a history of working with David Lynch, and here it definitely shows. He and Mylod present a world that looks wealthy and expensive but also frightfully cold. It’s a world of greys and browns. It’s a world with no sunlight and no warmth. No recognizing Deming’s name, I nonetheless thought of Lost Highway (on which he served in the same role) throughout, with its edges of vast darkness and coldly ultramodern architecture and decor. This film isn’t as dark as Lost Highway but it has a similar dreamlike quality to its look.
The acting is good, albeit with almost no one requiring anything. Ralph Fiennes is great at playing cold villains, so it’s no surprise that he imbues Chef Slowik with a remarkable quiet charisma here that almost serves to make Tyler’s hero worship make sense. I might quibble that his reaction to the cheeseburger request seems if anything a bit too genuine for this man, but that’s splitting hairs by any standard. Anya Taylor-Joy, as the voice of reason, plays a cool, calculated intelligence wonderfully, though she actually has little depth to play. Everyone else is essentially a one-dimensional character, including psychopath Tyler. There isn’t depth or nuance to play, but everyone does what they’re given.
Colin Stetson’s score also deserves some credit, as it quietly adds to the atmosphere of dread and tension throughout. It’s probably the most subtle part of the film, but a more noticeable score here could make the entire film feel loud and over-the-top.
The Menu is a great film. It could be accused of trying to say too much, but I think it’s more just a bunch of dark humor that all still at least connects to the film’s overall theme. It’s not “about” foodies, but it makes a joke about them. It’s not “about” rich people, but it makes jokes about them. Few films have ever captured tension as well or kept it so well sustained, and that’s something to be proud of, whether you’re doing it for laughs or not.
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