Anya Taylor-Joy Is the Heart of Horror-Comedy “The Menu”

The actress serves as audience surrogate in the film, which skewers the pretentious fine-dining world

November 17, 2022 6:00 am
Nicholas Hoult and Anya Taylor-Joy in "The Menu"
Nicholas Hoult and Anya Taylor-Joy in "The Menu"
Searchlight Pictures

If you know Anya Taylor-Joy primarily from her work on the hit Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, it might not immediately occur to you how most — not all, but a majority — of her movie roles tilt toward horror. Based on her parts in early movies like Glass or The Witch, she might even qualify as a scream queen: a young woman repeatedly menaced by the terrifying unknown on screen. But in other roles, she often flips those bizarre threats back on themselves until she resembles some kind of monster herself, echoing (though not exactly imitating) the ending of The Witch: In Thoroughbreds, her character’s popularity and academic success hides a capacity for scheming and manipulation. In Last Night in Soho, there’s more to her supposed murder-victim-in-waiting than meets the eye. In The New Mutants, she plays a mutant-powered teenager who eventually grabs a flaming sword from a hell dimension to fight back against her jailers. 

Her latest foray into sort-of horror, The Menu, turns the tables by seating her at one: Margot spends much of the movie positioned across from Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), who has brought her as his date to a private-island restaurant so high-end and exclusive that it allows just 12 customers per evening. Margot and Tyler’s fellow diners include a group of finance bros, a film star angling for a food-travelogue show, a pair of food critics and a suspicious older man who looks at Margot with alarm. Tyler himself is a major fanboy for Julian (Ralph Fiennes), the exacting celebrity chef in charge. In other words, Margot is the normal one here. 

She has her secrets, of course, as almost every Taylor-Joy character does, and as almost everyone in The Menu does, too. Mark Mylod’s comic thriller expertly blends the movie’s satirical portrayal of food culture as a pretentious nuisance, one that seems to demand a kind of obsequiousness from its customer base, with the dread of the unknown — the sense that failing to understand the rituals you’ve entered into (or, worse, assuming that you do) may do you harm.

Though Taylor-Joy fits into the movie’s gothic-comic atmosphere (which in turn feels of a piece with her other work), it’s unusual to see her playing such a clear audience surrogate. There’s something otherworldly about the combination of her big, expressive eyes with a deadpan affect — her American accent in particular makes her sound like Sarah Michelle Gellar playing a particularly worn-out Buffy the Vampire Slayer — and it’s a miracle that she hasn’t yet been hired to embody an actual extraterrestrial. In The Menu, Tyler keeps calling Margot a “cool girl” and Margot conforms to that description with tart little jabs at the proceedings (“please don’t say ‘mouthfeel’”). When they get a look at the elaborate presentation of the food, and then the elaborate presentation of… something more, Taylor-Joy’s face becomes our anchor. Her eyes so dominate her reaction shots that the rest of her barely needs to move. 

As far as Taylor-Joy’s career so far, The Menu isn’t even necessarily a high point. It’s crisply well-composed, funny and satisfying — more a well-made burger than an evocatively flavored foam, very much by design. It also forms an unusual contrast with this weekend’s other hunger-themed sorta-horror movie: Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All, about two fine young cannibals played by Timothée Chalamet and Taylor Russell. The Guadagnino film should be the more provocative of the two, and in terms of pushing the envelope, it is: The movie does not shy away from showing its characters, driven by an uncontrollable hunger, feeding on human flesh; they’re essentially primal (if somewhat reluctant) serial killers. It doesn’t reveal too much about the The Menu to say that it’s fairly tame by comparison. 

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Yet there’s something a bit wan and recessive about Bones and All, embodied by Chalamet, the young star who shares the film’s center. Chalamet has a more traditionally reputable career than Taylor-Joy; he’s a muse to Guadagnino, a repeat collaborator with Greta Gerwig and last year alone worked with Wes Anderson, Adam McKay and Denis Villeneuve. This is his first foray into horror, but as a leading man he’s a secret milquetoast; only his floppy hair runs free. There’s a fecklessness about his Bones and All character that’s probably intentional, but it makes the romance difficult to swoon over. Mark Rylance, as a creepy older “eater,” as the movie calls cannibals, is doing hammier work here, but also holds the screen in a way that Chalamet quite can’t. For that matter, Taylor Russell does, too — maybe her time in the JV horror of the Escape Room movies better prepared her for bringing emotional anguish into outlandish scenarios. 

Taylor-Joy, meanwhile, holds her own opposite an imposing Ralph Fiennes, and she practically pushes Hoult off the screen with just a withering look. It’s easy to picture Chalamet having fun with Hoult’s role here, and might have made Tyler’s obnoxiousness a little more stealth, and a little more endearing; he’s so funny as a supporting dork in Gerwig’s movies, as he was playing a rebellious youth in The French Dispatch. (Hoult, to both his credit and detriment, is so willing to act like an ass that he gives the game away.) There’s no reason to pit Chalamet and Taylor-Joy against each other, but as our biggest movie stars age out of the job and young actors plainly audition to replace them, it’s notable that one can make a dark comedy feel that much more precise, and the other doesn’t kick his romantic drama into a higher gear. It feels like the horror in Taylor-Joy’s filmography has steeled her for the unsavory business of pursuing stardom (and not looking like she’s pursuing stardom). Even in the relatively minor likes of The Menu, where Taylor-Joy spends a lot of the running time insisting she doesn’t want much to eat, she conveys something Chalamet struggles with: hunger.

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