Infusing satire into a dark comedy is a powerful way for filmmakers to amplify the circumstances, while also retaining authentic elements, of any situation. That’s certainly the case for the story of the new ensemble dark comedy thriller, The Menu. The feature cleverly indicts the excessive, exclusive culture of the elite upper class in a slightly heightened reality.
The Menu was written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, and directed by Mark Mylod. The film was produced by Oscar-winning writer-director, Adam McKay and his frequent collaborator, Will Ferrell.
The Menu follows a couple, Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), as they travel to a coastal island in the Pacific Northwest to eat at an exclusive restaurant, Hawthorn. The establishment is run by the reclusive, globally celebrated Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), who has prepared a lavish tasting menu for select special guests.
Joining the couple are three young, already inebriated tech employees, Bryce (Rob Yang), Soren (Arturo Castro) and Dave (Mark St. Cyr); an older wealthy couple and repeat clients, Anne and Richard (Judith Light and Reed Birney); renowned restaurant critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) and her lavish magazine editor, Ted (Paul Adelstein); and the famous middle-aged movie star (John Leguizamo) and his assistant, Felicity (Aimee Carrero).
Hosted by the immaculately dressed front of house staff led by general Elsa (Hong Chau), the evening unfolds with increasing tension at each of the guest tables as secrets are revealed and unexpected courses are served. With wild and violent events occurring, Slowik’s motivation begins to rattle the diners as it becomes increasingly apparent that his elaborate menu is designed to catalyze to a shocking finale.
The Menu is an unconventional genre movie that thrives on exploring its characters’ backstories and personalities through dark humor and sharp satire of privilege amongst America’s upper class. Mylod’s adaptation of Reiss and Tracy’s script operates on a slightly heightened sense of absurdity as it examines how some members of the elite wealthy class are only consumed by their own circumstances that are also rooted in reality.
As a result of that blend of absurdity and reality, the dark comedy ultimately brings a sense of humanity and emotion to each character, even those who initially seem unlikeable. Chef Slowik, for example, is an established, renowned restaurant chef who’s at the top of his career, but he’s still a complex character. He helms the prestigious Hawthorn, but he doesn’t own the restaurant, which puts him at the mercy of investors who don’t always appreciate his vision and passion for food.
The Academy Award nominated Fiennes thrived in the role, as he created a full backstory for his character, including the fact that he’s someone whose artistic purity has been tarnished by his wealthy clientele. He begins to despise the elite consumers he serves and makes his living off of while working at Hawthorn. The chef eventually even starts to loathe himself for being corrupted by their beliefs.
Chef Slowik realizes that his clientele can never be satisfied by his work, even though he’s a perfectionist, and detests the fact that he constantly has to maintain a level of perfection for people who never really appreciate it.
Being so dedicated to the elevation and innovation of his artform and not feeling appreciated for his work, Chef Slowik‘s humanity and pain are brought to the forefront of the film’s story, which leaves a sense of understanding to his actions. While the way he treats his diners during their evening at Hawthorn can’t be condoned, his emotions put his decisions into context.
The Menu‘s dark humor and sharp satire of privilege amongst America’s upper class, which is brilliantly infused into characters like Chef Slowik, are highlighted by the project’s equally stunning visuals, including its cinematography and main location’s set design. While shooting The Menu, Mylod collaborated with cinematographer Peter Deming, who has extensive experience shooting horror and thriller films, including Mulholland Drive and The Cabin in the Woods.
Deming’s expert knowledge of camera placement and lighting helped evolve the conflict and tension throughout The Menu, like focusing a spotlight on the characters who are feeling the most pressure as they fight for their lives.
Mylod also kept all of the cast members on set during every scene, even if they weren’t directly involved in a particular shot. After encouraging the actors to research their characters and share that analysis with their co-stars, the performers were able to stay in their characters’ mindsets and physicality as they sat in the background.
The director and cinematographer smartly made sure every moment was covered by two cameras, but didn’t always inform the actors when they would be filmed throughout each scene. That allowed the performers to quickly learn their movements, and choreograph every moment in character.
Although The Menu‘s action plays with the boundaries of reality, it built a cinematic world that feels authentic. Hawthorn evokes the very best of a global fine dining destination. To create the sparse, contemporary restaurant and its surrounding buildings, Mylod worked with production designer Ethan Tobman, who brilliantly blended food and film on screen.
Tobman created a unique space for the restaurant that augmented the diners’ experience. Every design choice was guided by a character’s perspective and their emotional journey.
Chef Slowik, for example, is inspired by nature. So every ingredient he chooses for a dish that’s seen on screen in the restaurant is something he would have found in the landscape of the remote island that Hawthorn’s located on.
Since the majority of the dark comedy takes place inside Hawthorn, Tobman and set decorator Gretchen Gattuso created exquisite sets for the restaurant. Hawthorn’s décor is set in a rustic modernism, as the elite guests’ dining room is rigid and minimalist, while the kitchen Chef Slowik rigidly runs has a slightly more chaotic sensibility. The overall island features very strong visuals that aren’t commonplace in the real world, which powerfully references the experience the guests have while there.
The Menu is an unconventional genre movie that powerfully emphasizes its message of indicting the excessive, exclusive culture of the wealthy through dark humor and sharp satire. Through its performances, cinematography and set design, the thriller stunningly examines how some members of the upper class are only consumed by their own lives until their circumstances unexpectedly change their existences forever.
Searchlight Pictures is releasing The Menu in theaters today, November 18.
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Here’s the trailer of the film.