The Menu, by Albert W. Vogt III

Perhaps I should have gone to see The Chosen.  I would have, but in my cursory research of the title it seemed to me that they were combining episodes of a series and making them into a movie.  I would like one day to have The Legionnaire cover non-films.  But, until the day comes when it is more than myself and Cameron, or a number of other unlikely factors fall my way, I will be sticking to film.  Hence, the choice for this weekend was The Menu.  The trailers I saw did not get me excited.  As I get older, I prefer happy movies.  Sure enough, it started going in a sad direction, and I found myself rooting for unlikely people as a practicing Catholic simply so that I could have some hope to which to cling.  Then again, no saint ever started out that way.

As you can probably guess based on the title, The Menu is about a restaurant.  Its head chef, Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), caters only to a select group of people at his exclusive island establishment called Hawthorne.  Such superlatives are necessary so that you understand the actual first character we meet, who is Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), a foodie who idolizes Chef Slowik and has been trying to get a reservation for some time.  Because Hawthorne does not accept single bookings, and his girlfriend recently dumped him, he hires a female escort going by Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy).  They join a high-powered group boarding the boat to Hawthorne, which includes well-known actors and food critics.  I will introduce them as they matter to the story.  The main character, though, is Margot, who is doing her best to indulge the overly enthusiastic Tyler.  When they arrive, they are greeted by the maître d’ Elsa (Hong Chau), who is keen to note Margot being a replacement for the person Tyler is supposed to have with him.  This is only the beginning of what I will charitably refer to as the oddities, for now.  They are brought through the barracks like living quarters of the restaurant’s staff where they all live as a “family,” shown several of the places where the kitchen’s ingredients are grown and harvested, and then finally to the chic dining area with a view of the water.  Along the way, Elsa and the rest of the staff’s behavior becomes firmer, bordering on rude.  According to Chef Slowik, it is all part of the experience of not “eating,” but rather tasting and savoring.  Through the first few courses, it is the sort of high dining you might expect from a place that charges thousands of dollars just to breath the air inside.  This changes when they get to the tacos.  As with all the other courses, there is a story preceding, this one involving Chef Slovik talking about his alcoholic parents and having to stab his drunk father in the leg with scissors.  To somewhat allay their anxieties, he tells them that what they are about the consume is supposed to evoke some kind of memory, and he serves the protein for said dish with mini-clippers stuck into them.  The real kicker, though, is the revealing tortillas accompanying them, which have closely guarded secrets about each of the known diners imprinted on them.  Another word for this is dirt because all those present are nearly as big a monster as Chef Slowik.  To this point, those at the table had been mostly taking the increasingly tense mood as being part of a show.  Proceedings are kicked up an extra notch when one of the sous chefs commits suicide in front of all them by putting a pistol in his mouth and pulling the trigger.  Understandably, everyone is freaking out, though for Chef Slowik it is Margot who poses a problem.  Everything he has planned, as he eventually reveals, is meant to be an elaborate last meal where all of them, staff included, are supposed to die.  They all have a part to play as well.  Yet, because Margot had not initially been on the guest list, she does not fit.  Thus, as the literal blood begins to be spilled, Chef Slowik offers her a position with the staff, seeing through her guise for being the call girl she is, and thus one of them in the service industry.  Seeing no way out, she agrees for the moment.  In this manner, she is sent to get a key ingredient for the final course that Elsa had neglected to bring to the kitchen.  Elsa follows Margot and attempts to kill her, thinking the newcomer trying to usurp her position.  They end up fighting inside Chef Slowik’s private quarters, with Margot inadvertently killing Elsa.  Still, this frees her to do a further search of the premises, and she finds a citizens band (CB) radio and manages to call the Coast Guard.  Unfortunately, this proves to be yet another ruse on Chef Slowik’s part, and their salvation is dashed as quickly as it arose.  However, the radio was not the only item that Margot found.  She also saw clippings of how Chef Slowik got started, including his proud face as he presents a burger hot off the grill.  Hence, just as the insanity is about to reach its terrifying climax, Margot interrupts.  Standing, she tells Chef Slowik that she had not enjoyed her food, that she found it pretentious (which it is, among other things), and that, worst of all, she is still hungry.  With everyone looking on in stunned silence, Chef Slowik asks what she wants and she requests a cheeseburger and fries.  With a smirk, he obliges, but after only one bite, she requests a to-go bad.  He acquiesces one more and she is free to leave.   Walking out, she finds the fake coast guard boat, and is off.  Everyone else dies as human smores in an explosion, which Margot witnesses while eating her burger and using the title document as a napkin.

So, yeah, The Menu is pretty dark, and that is without even mentioning the part where the men are hunted down for sport, or how Tyler is purposely humiliated for not really knowing how to cook and convinced to commit suicide.  I will talk about these things from a moral point of view when I truly dig into my Catholic take.  For now, as always, please take my Faith as subtext.  Aside from that, I will give the film credit for creating a tense thriller.  As I said in the introduction, I prefer different fare these days.  Still, if I must watch one of these films, I would like it to make sense throughout.  Of course, you are talking about a mad cook (which is an interesting trope in Western culture, by the way) who takes his eccentricities to the extreme, and here is me looking for logic.  Yet, the one symbolic moment of what I am talking about comes with the fake Coast Guard.  Their boat buzzes the seaside viewing area of the dining room, and as part of the charade Chef Slowik convinces the diners that it would be in their best interest not to say anything.  Inwardly, I wanted someone with a backbone to stand up when the Coast Guard entered and say something.  It happens more subtly, with movie star (John Leguizamo) writing “help us” on a piece of paper on which he was supposedly giving a signature. Either way, the whole time I kept wondering why it is only one guy from the Coast Guard.  I confess, I was suckered by this moment, as were the diners, yet it maintains the integrity of the film regarding the suspense.  The last thing you want in such flicks is to be taken out of it by a turn of events you find silly.  There may be some that feel the ending fits that bill.  On the other hand, it struck me as Margot being the only one to truly understand Chef Slowik given the insights she gained from being in his house.

Margot being the main protagonist in The Menu makes for somewhat of a challenge for a Catholic reviewer.  As I mentioned in the introduction, none of the saints started out their lives as the holy people they became, and some of Jesus’ own disciples were no angels.  Yet, it was specifically to those people that God sent His only Son into the world.  The issue with Margot is that she seems unrepentant about her lifestyle.  Nonetheless, she is the least of my concerns.  There are some pretty subtle Christian tones throughout the film, and all of them used to underscore how terrible of a person is Chef Slowik.  The biggest one is that he has made himself into a god, and those in his employ follow him with a slavish devotion.  They are willing to literally immolate themselves with a purifying fire in the end, as Chef Slowik puts it, which also has Biblical parallels.  Earlier, he refers to what he does as being at the cutting edge of life and death, where God exists.  In other words, he is playing God, and that is what he is doing with the lives of his diners.  There is a reason why one of the commandments says that there shall be no other god but God.  Without the overwhelming love that is the one true God, and Him wielding it in ways that we will never comprehend, the world would be chaos, or at least more so than it already is.  This film is a microcosm of this truth.  Chef Slowik imprisons these people because he believes they are the reason why his passion for the culinary arts has become this perverted obsession.  Each diner selected for this night (except Margot, of course) bears some measure of guilt for this in his eyes.  How many of us have been wronged by somebody and wished that something awful would happen to that person in retribution, and that God would take care of this for us?  That is not what God does.  It is also why we cannot be God.  Redemption is real, and a mystery, made all the more mysterious by the uncertain and winding road it often takes.  I just pray that Margot does something better with her life.

In a purely pragmatic sense, The Menu is a clever movie that is well acted, directed, and shot.  It is also full of terrible people doing terrible things to one another.  A big reason why I started The Legionnaire is because I grew tired of saying things like, “It is a good movie, but . . .” without explaining everything after the “but” in detail.  Well, here you go.  It is not a movie I would recommend to any audience.

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