'The Menu' (2022)/Directed by Mark Mylod/Grade: A
Now this is a more recent selection amongst my favorite movies, but for very good reason. When I saw this hilarious and twisted dark comedy last year at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, it truly took me on a ride. It followed the story of a young couple named Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), who attend a luxurious dinner on a remote island, along with several other rich, very specifically chosen guests. However, head chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) has some shocking surprises in store for everyone as the feast progresses.
What entertained me so much about this film, on a surface level, was how merciless the humor was in poking fun at the characters. When a prestigious food critic named Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) overanalyzed the food she was served, I rolled my eyes at her pretentiousness. When three employees (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro and Mark St Cyr) of the restaurant's angel investor boasted about their wealth to each other, it was like they all had financial envy. That was the point. All of these characters- except for Margot- took themselves way too seriously, and no was safe from the film's stern eye. This was also a credit to writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, the former of which joined the post-screening Q&A.
This also lent itself to the game performances by the entire cast. In particular, I was delighted by the work of Nicholas Hoult, who once again showcased his true versatility as an actor. I won't give anything too specific away plot-wise if you've not seen it, but not all was as it seemed up front. Anya Taylor-Joy, in addition, delivered some of her best work yet. Margot was clearly intended as the audience surrogate to guide us, as an outsider, through this world. She was aghast at everyone's either reverence or entitlement towards Slowik and his staff's creations, she was unafraid to speak her mind about the food. She also came to understand Slowik himself in a very crucial way that made the satirical and dramatic elements stick much more.
But no one came close to surpassing Ralph Fiennes himself, as far as I was concerned. This man has always been one our greatest living actors in my opinion, and here he had quite the meaty role to work with. Slowik wasn't just a tool through which to make a mockery out of the other characters, or a cartoony caricature of a villain; he felt like a real human being. Flawed, angry, deeply sad about both the state of his life, and his own role in getting there. As an artist with seemingly no passion left for his craft, he was just as pitiful as he was menacing and hilarious.
I also appreciated how well the movie balanced dark comedy (already an incredibly difficult tonal tightrope to walk) with carefully placed moments of tension and fear, neither one a distraction from the other. Part of this was due to the aforementioned script, but it owed even more credit to Mark Mylod's direction of the actors, as well as the amazing editing by Christopher Tellefsen (A Quiet Place, The Village, Moneyball).
Ethan Tobman's production design also lent itself to presenting in Hawthorne not just a divine restaurant, but an entirely fleshed-out, cultish community. None of the staff have any individuality, save for Elsa (Hong Chau), the sharp-tongued maitre d. It was a simple but effective method to emphasize how Slowik's life had been consumed by his work, and the staff's lives had totally been given over to pleasing him, and constantly attempting to innovate with their food. The clinical, sterile design of their shared home fit like a glove.
But most of all, I was absolutely taken by the lush, jaunty, intense score by Colin Stetson. I had previously been a fan of his work on the film Hereditary (2018), another all-time favorite, as well as some of his solo work as a saxophonist. None of that could've prepared me for this, though. It just swept me away, then tightened its grip on me and didn't let go. You'll have to experience the movie to see what I mean.
As an artist myself- a critic, screenwriter and director- when I saw this at the Savannah Film Festival, I was so affected by this film because it masterfully skewers those who make the art, versus those who would take it for granted, or criticize it without knowledge or regard for the all the pains that went into making it. By combining that ruthless commentary with such a well-balanced tone, as well as the finely tuned technicals and performances, I stand by my then-immediate decision that this was one of 2022's best movies.