Menu, The: Mark Mylod’s Horror Satire Set in a Restaurant, Starring Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy

The film’s team explains how the horror-comedy takes on the dark side of hunger and the roles of class, gender and race within the world of fine dining.

 

In The Menu, the exclusive experience of the remote restaurant Hawthorn is as much about the attendees as the meticulously crafted plates.

As Ralph Fiennes chef Julian Slowik reveals, it’s because of what the curated tasting menu explores: the corrosiveness of hunger– for power, relevance, money, love and more–within all its diners brought together for a single final night.

Searchlight's The Menu

“We do skew them. They have pretty rough night,” director Mark Mylod said of the movie’s peeling back of what enticed the guests into Hawthorn’s deadly trap. “But to be honest, I never intended to eat the rich. For me, the story was a genuine character study of flawed people. It was really a genuine exploration of why are they behaving like that? Why are they there? What choices have they made? How have their egos and entitlement led us to this place and for them to take this bait in terms of their own ideologies?”

The cast of Searchlight's The Menu
Hawthorn’s dinner guests in The Menu COURTESY OF SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES

“What are the archetypes of people that would actually be in a restaurant like Hawthorn? It’s the rich tech guys, the luminaries of the food world,” producer Betsy Koch said. “We had the idea because Will Tracy — the writer along with Seth Reiss — is a huge foodie. He goes to a lot of these restaurants.”

It’s a group that’s not limited, as actress Hong Chau notes, by the literal “black and white way” Hollywood has traditionally talked “about the haves and the have-nots.”

John Leguizamo as Aging Movie Star

“It’s not just wagging the finger at the old white guy because that’s too simplistic and reductive. There are so many people from all walks of life who occupy spaces of privilege,” she said. “I love that John Leguizamo is the one playing the aging movie star and the tech bros, who could have easily just been three jock-y white guys.”

“This is a character absolutely swamped and drowning in self-loathing, and attempting to go out with some kind of a bang, but also on a moral level to actually atone for his own corroded ego and for his abuse of his own power,” the director said. “He’s trying to atone for his sins as best he can. Obviously, he can’t, but the least he can do is own them.”

Ralph Fiennes
Ralph Fiennes in The Menu COURTESY OF SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES

According to Fiennes, for his chef who surrendered to the feeding of his own ego, his is a journey about the tension between “an obsessive-compulsive narcissist” wanting perfection and moral clarity.

“He’s someone who started off with very pure aspirations about how you make food or you get your food to people, and I think he hates himself because he’s obviously a genius, but he’s allowed himself to become very remote,” the actor explained. “What I liked was the complication. He doesn’t like what he’s doing. He doesn’t like where he’s gone. There’s real contradiction inside him that he wants the power and the control, but at a deeper level, he despises himself for it.”

It’s not just that desire for adulation and authority that brought him and his guests to this moment. He was involved in harassing a female subordinate, a sous chef, Katherine (Christina Brucato), who has conceived the night’s twisted concept and explosive end.

Navigating Male-Dominated Industry

This thread is one of the direct connections to the diners and the film’s larger exploration of gender in fine dining. A wealthy, aging man whose dark secret is the nature of his gross infidelity, Reed Birney’s Richard had previously subjected another one of the night’s attendees to harm through sexual behavior.

The two men are responsible for their misbehavior but in different ways, with the latter forced to lose his wedding ring finger. For Birney, Julian’s decision to take accountability versus Richard being made accountable goes beyond the chef’s connection to low-paid service workers. “The guys from my generation when they misbehave, they’ve gotten away with it for long time,” he said. “The first impulse is to deny, and maybe the younger generation is conditioned somehow to come clean.”

John Leguizamo
John Leguizamo in The Menu COURTESY OF SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES

John Leguizamo’s George is an aging action star inspired by Steven Seagal who has lost his artistic authenticity amid diminishing industry interest and control over his career. It’s something a present and future Julian can relate to — and fear.

“They all have something toxic about them and one of his bad qualities is narcissism. He’s vain and that’s part of his downfall. One of the reasons that he’s there is to show off. He’s there to suck up the oxygen,” Leguizamo said, before noting how his character’s “sins” are different than the other men’s in the room. “The other guys are despicable, but this guy — you feel a little pity for because he’s a failure. He’s a washed-up action star and there’s something sad and tragic about somebody who is at the top of their game and then no longer is.”

While the movie has plenty of bad men, it doesn’t limit its critical eye to the privilege and abuses of one gender. The film also features several women, all of whom earned their seat at the table. Judith Light, who plays Richard’s wife Anne, sees her character as a woman desperately clinging to her “self-esteem, her place in the world, her entitlement, her wealth and the kind of lifestyle she thinks she wants to have.”

“We were allowing ourselves not to speak up, not to say anything,” Light said of the women diners, with the exception of one. “Anya’s Margot took back what a lot of the other women let go but what they felt they wanted.”

There is a connection and camaraderie that develops between these women, despite class and other distinctions. For Anne, it leads to a realization that sees her in “some ways take her power back.” But ultimately, like the men, these women’s entitlement and inability to lift their own fingers serve as their downfall.

“They behave in ways they think will get them what they want,” Light said. “But everyone in the film, as Anya has said, is hungry. They have wants, needs, hungers that they’re not able to solve in the ways that they have always been trying to solve them.”

Judith Light
Judith Light in The Menu COURTESY OF SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES

While that hunger lives both literally and metaphorically within Hawthorn’s front of house, The Menu is interested in exploring hunger and power through the back of the house. It’s a place that, as Katherine’s storyline reveals, is also full of toxicity, fueled by powerful men like Slowik and those willing to work in a place that consumes them in more ways than one.

This drive and desperation to attain power within the culinary world at personal costs manifest in a number of shocking moments involving Hawthorn’s kitchen staff. In one sequence, Slowik’s second, Elsa (Chau), literally fights Taylor-Joy’s Margot to the death to remain the chef’s “ride or die.”

“I wanted to make sure that Elsa felt like she was incredibly intelligent and capable and took pride in what she did. I saw her as the campaign manager for a political candidate. She was so proud of what they had achieved together and would not let anything come in the way of that,” she said. “There is something profound in that — even though it is a fight scene and entertaining action scene.”

For The Menu team, exploring the hunger and corrosiveness that permeate the culinary ecosystem was one of its ultimate goals.

“The toxicity in the kitchen you hear about from the hierarchy of the industry is also reaction to the toxicity of the patrons and how they react to the food,” Tobman said.

Ralph Fiennes and Hong Chau
Ralph Fiennes and Hong Chau in The Menu COURTESY OF SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES

“One thing that we want people to understand is the different levels of servitude and exploitation and what it’s like in an industry like this — to see people that give their bodies and souls to this type of work,” producer Koch added. “We wanted to implicate the audience to take a closer look at their own behavior.”