Fox Searchlight’s The Menu offers viewers a complex pairing of drama-tinged horror and biting satire of foodie culture. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Hong Chau, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Nicholas Hoult, director Mark Mylod’s film takes viewers into Chef Julian Slowik’s (Fiennes) exclusive 7-course dining experience. Just one with a sinister aftertaste.
To underscore the delicate balance of tones, composer Colin Stetson (Hereditary, 2022’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre) pushed classic film scoring beyond a traditional sonic palate.
“Something that is quite ubiquitous in food film is the usage of strings. There’s always a kind of a classical bent to the world. This erudite, sort of elitist, bent, and I wanted to nod to that without becoming fully entrenched in it for the duration,” Stetson explained. “So it is kind of this bubbly, playful, delightful thing that can still feel posh and lavish and luxurious but ultimately can be flipped later yet still retain more or less the DNA of the beginning.”
Initially, Stetson was drawn to the idea of accompanying traditional instrumentation with music generated from ordinary kitchen tools. Eventually, though, he employed pots, pans, and glasses in a much more subtle way as it became evident the alternative instruments would draw too much attention to themselves. Water glasses did become a major contributor in certain scenes. Stetson layered sounds generated from the glasses played by a metal drummer using chopsticks several times over themselves to create a completely unique sonic texture.
When approaching a project, Stetson doesn’t ordinarily look for extravagant or outlandish ways to compose his score. Instead, he starts with the script. From there, he’s able to identify what the piece requires, what the essence or character of the music should be. Upon reading Seth Reiss and Will Tracy’s script, specific contributions such as the representation of each course, the pattern of Chef Slowik’s claps that announced each course, the general percussive nature of a kitchen, and even the ordinary ticking of a clock provided key information as to how the score should evolve.
Stetson also included vocal work with a faintly choral influence to reference foodie worship of a celebrity chef.
“The choir, which is more on the latter half of the film as things progress towards the climax, is much, much more of a representation of sincerely loving and worshiping, more of a churchy vibe that happens near to the end,” Stetson referenced. “As we begin to really understand what it is happening toward the end, more grotesque, uglier instrumentation and sounds are there to give the whole of it some teeth.”
Avoiding specific character themes throughout the film, Stetson does employ arpeggiatic saxophones to provide a continuous representation of Chef Slowik’s ultimate goal for the evening. The remainder of the score tends to interact with various characters as they navigate this mysterious and potentially deadly world. Some themes are initially represented in a very light, innocent way but are then later revisited in more sinister contexts.
Toward the end of the film, a character breaks the pattern of fine dining and requests a more simple meal. It’s a moment played with a tricky mixture of comic tension as it, avoiding spoilers, potentially saves a character’s life. Orchestrally, the moment provides an opportunity for Stetson to bring threads of his score thus far together into a deceptively simple, nearly loving moment that echoes characters bowing to the altar of a world renown chef.
“It’s like a worshipful choral piece that has, as its bed, the same undulating, pulsing saxophone arpeggios that have accompanied [Chef Slowik’s] dreamier states throughout. This moment marks the foundation of where all of that started for him in the first place,” Stetson revealed, avoiding spoilers. “I liked the idea of presenting the dreamy being that foundation, the coral being the lead, and then weaving through it all of this bowed piano strings that pulse and end up sounding quite like somewhere between a pipe organ and harpsichord. It just has this worshipful, stylistically Baroque piece of church music.”
The Menu opens nationwide in theaters only today.