Welcome to Hawthorn… and being held to the highest possible standard.
Exceeding a thousand dollars per plate and for parties of two or more only, Hawthorn offers an exclusive dining experience. Secluded on a twelve-acre island, a select staff harvests and prepares everything for their restaurant, all under the watchful eye of their mentor, Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). The evening’s guest list includes a food critic (Janet McTeer) and her agreeable husband (Paul Adelstein), a fading movie star (John Leguizamo) and his disillusioned assistant (Aimee Carrero), a rich couple (Reed Birney and Judith Light) who are regular diners at the establishment, a trio of tech bros, and a super fan of the chef named Tyler (Nicholas Hoult). For hostess Elsa (Hong Chau), Tyler’s date presents a problem: Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) wasn’t part of the anticipated guest list — a monkey wrench in the microwave threatening to disrupt an evening planned down to the tenderest morsel.
Whether viewers know a sous chef from a kitchen porter or an immersion from an emulsion, suffice to say it’s part of the point. Known for series television such as “Succession” and “Game of Thrones,” director Mark Mylod invades the world of high-end dining from a script by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy. For those whose high dining experience began and ended with Ratatouille, the themed meal is served in individual courses over four hours, each with a story explaining its inclusion in The Menu. Unfortunately for the guests, their unique involvement is all part of the festivities — including any resistance to their required participation — but what surprises await the guests before the check arrives?
The less a viewer knows the better, because adding up the clues and watching the reveals is the no-bread and butter of the piece; for full enjoyment, stop reading here and come back afterward — we’ll wait.
From over-the-top title cards describing each course to the eccentricities of the guests, The Menu is a broiled tongue-in-cheek dark comedy “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Secrets aren’t just limited to the guests, and the staff of Hawthorn all have their own parts to play. Margot is the wildcard, the unplanned event threatening to undermine Chef Slowik’s research and attention to detail, and his need to know who she is plays directly into how his plan must be altered to reach the intended conclusion. Unlike “The Queen’s Gambit,” imagine Anya Taylor-Joy using a spice rack to control the board instead of chess pieces… and the stakes are somewhat higher than international prestige.
Leaving nothing to chance, every member of Hawthorn’s staff has been briefed on those being served, and the reveals of individual personalities wonderfully contradict the meal’s dire circumstance in the most dark and twisted ways. The unrealized ambitions of Jeremy (Adam Aalderks); an accepted contribution for Katherine (Christina Brucato); and the militant obedience of Elsa. Chef Slowik even takes to plying a personal guest as witness to his achievement in the most “Cask of Amontillado” kind of way; it’s no secret there’s a finality to it all. Simmering underneath is a human need to be appreciated for one’s efforts while having nothing more to prove, reaching the top of a mountain only to find emptiness.
The very definition of a slow-burn thriller, The Menu is the soft ticking of a kitchen timer teasing the cooking meal to come, waiting as the air fills with an aroma thick enough to already taste. Both servers and patrons are capable of being good or bad people, so be kind to one another — you never know when either might snap.
The Menu is rated R for strong/disturbing violent content, language throughout, some sexual references, and please don’t say “mouthfeel.”
Four skull recommendation out of four