Hawthorn is an epicurean’s wet dream. Dinner in this restaurant, around which the stylish feature film by Mark Mylod The menu turns, you have to make a reservation several months in advance and pay more than $1,250 per person. The restaurant is run by world-renowned chef Slowik (played with quiet sternness by Ralph Fiennes) and is located on a remote island somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Their tasting menu changes with the seasons, depending on both the whims of its parent and the terroir. The restaurant can only accommodate about ten people. There are no cell phones allowed. They don’t have solo dinners.
What kind of person wants – or more accurately can afford – to dine at this fine establishment? The filthy rich, of course – the self-centered, macabre characters for whom it’s impossible to summon an ounce of goodwill. The menu gorges on the blunders of these personalities and savors their humiliation. It’s a vengeful dark comedy that probes seeping class anxieties (a popular theme in movies lately). It provides opportunities to strip the Emperor of his clothes, and while that doesn’t necessarily translate to the most telling social commentary, it does make for a fun ride.
Rich and tasty.
Mylod is best known for his television directing — Shameless, Game of Thrones and more recently Succession (for which he landed an Emmy nomination) – but he’s not new to film. His first projects the great white (in 2005) and What is your number (in 2011) are mostly forgotten, but with The menua film that displays a sharp vision, the director makes an exciting and confident return to cinema.
Written by Willy Tracy (Succession) and Seth Reiss (Late Night with Seth Myers), The menu follows Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), an insufferable epicurean, and his companion Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), a woman shrouded in mystery, for a dinner party in Hawthorn. They are among the restaurant’s 12 diners, which also include an unnamed actor trying to revive his career (John Leguizamo) and his ill-fated assistant, Felicity (Aimee Carrero); Lillian Bloom, a delirious restaurant critic (Janet McTeer), and her editor, Ted (Paul Adelstein); Anne (Judith Light) and Richard (Reed Birney), a wealthy couple; and Bryce (Rob Yang), Soren (Arturo Castro) and Dave (Mark St. Cyr), a trio of obnoxious tech bros whose boss is Hawthorn’s main investor; and a mysterious person that I won’t spoil here.
An effective but unhurried introduction outlines each character enough to allow us to understand the contours of their personality. Everyone except Margot shares a reality of wealth, access and privilege. When we meet the pair, Tyler berates Margot for smoking cigarettes, insisting she’ll tantalize his taste buds. Margot doesn’t care: she doesn’t understand Tyler’s reverence for expensive culinary experiments and finds his devotion humorous.
On the island, the group is greeted by Elsa (a piercing Hong Chau), the stoic leader of the leader’s team and the closest person he has to an advisor. She shows them around, starting with the coast: cinematographer Peter Deming’s camera basks in the aquatic life of the place with close-up shots of crabs crawling on driftwood and washed up seaweed. Further inland, the environment becomes more coniferous, with towering trees, verdant grass and plump bushes. The island is self-sufficient – fish comes from the sea, vegetables are harvested from the garden, slaughtered meat from domestic stock.
The menu is structured around Hawthorn’s tasting menu, and the film’s striking visual language is reflected in the meals, which are each presented with brief and witty title cards. Elsa leads diners to the main dining room — an open-concept steel kitchen that flirts with a brutalist aesthetic — after the tour. In Ethan Tobman’s clean production design, cool grays and blues dominate the color palette. The orange of the fireplace lining the walls and the open flames in the kitchen only add an illusion of warmth.
The guests are seated. The waiters push their chairs around and put napkins on their laps. A chipper sommelier floats through the room offering aged reds and fresh whites. When Chef materializes to greet his captive audience, the buzz dies and all eyes fall on him. Her introduction is a poetic recitation of her food philosophy. There are sinister undertones, but amorous diners don’t realize they’re caught in an evil game of cat and mouse until the second course (raw dive scallop, pickled local seaweed and seaweed). At that point, it’s too late.
The tension mounts over the course, each more eccentric than the other. Tracy and Reiss’ clever and inventive screenplay pokes fun at the stresses of culinary life without belittling the level of creativity and confidence needed to serve high-caliber meals every night. Collin Stetson’s score – imposing, biting, swelling – further immerses us in the charm of Hawthorn cuisine.
But the basic conclusions drawn from the depiction of class tensions threaten to unravel this otherwise tightly wrought story about the pressure cooker conditions created by capitalism and its inconsistent enforcement. Those who are not rich cannot afford to leave the hamster wheel. The menu teases a more subtle and biting analysis than it ultimately delivers with its over-reliance on the conductor’s rhapsodic and overly explanatory speeches.
Myod’s film is strongest when it focuses on process and depicts how the staff obsessively sauté, cure, ferment, measure, flavor, garnish and build each dish. At times like these, performing a tasting menu begins to resemble the spectacle of the theater: there are high stakes, bigger egos, and an endless pursuit of a fleeting feeling.