The Menu Features The Ultimate Ralph Fiennes Performance [Fantastic Fest]

"The Menu" is a movie literally set in a restaurant and its plot revolves around the preparation and consumption of food, so you can hopefully forgive this article beginning with a food joke. Ahem. Like a responsible hunter using every part of the buffalo, "The Menu" uses every part of the Ralph Fiennes.

Let me explain. It's surely common and accepted knowledge by people with good taste that Ralph Fiennes is one of the most reliable, versatile actors working today — a handsome, menacing, hilarious, charming, bizarre chameleon of a performer who can fluctuate between heartbreaking and campy, terrifying and wry, without missing a beat. But what if there was a movie that featured every single thing one could admire about the star of "Schindler's List," "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "The Constant Gardener," a bunch of "Harry Potter" movies, and a few James Bond entries? What if there was a movie that feels so tailor-made for the wide-ranging yet specific talents of Fiennes that it's literally impossible to imagine anyone else in the part?

Well, that would be Chef Slowik in "The Menu."

Owning the room

If you haven't seen the trailers for "The Menu," don't watch them. But you should see the movie, which follows a group of filthy rich diners who attend an exclusive meal on a private island overseen by the legendary Chef Slowik, who slowly reveals over the course of a very long evening that he has ... plans for his customers. And that's all you need know. Well, that and Ralph Fiennes plays Slowik, and it's the kind of performance that reminds you why he's played dashing leading men, terrifying villains, action heroes, tragic everymen, and goofball comedy over the course of his 30-plus year career.

To say Slowik is complicated would be an understatement. But that doesn't mean this is a delicate, subtle performance. Not at all. The beauty of what Fiennes does with this character is that he embodies a man defined by bombast, an artist with a chip on his shoulder who's not afraid to grandstand like a big ham. But it's the character who is hammy, not Fiennes, and it's delicate, deranged balancing act. As "The Menu" gets deeper into its increasingly twisted and unsettling story (no spoilers here), we both understand this man more and less in equal measure. He's unpredictable, absurd, terrifying, and clearly, someone who rightfully controls any room he enters.

Because that's what Fiennes does. He owns the screen and plays characters who command the attention of all those in his vicinity, for reasons both powerful and discomforting.

You believe him

Look at the characters Fiennes has played over the decades. The psychotic Nazi officer Amon Goeth in "Schindler's List." The tragic wounded soldier in "The English Patient." The violent but oddly sensible Harry in "In Bruges." The withdrawn, obsessive serial killer Francis Dolarhyde in "Red Dragon." Each of these characters radiates their own special brand of competence — they're masters of their corner of the world. When they speak, you listen. And you listen because not doing so could mean your death. Or because they're clearly the most capable person in the room. Even the aloof hotel manager M. Gustave in "The Grand Budapest Hotel," one of Fiennes' best and funniest performances, is a master of his domain thrust into a precarious situation. That film is wise enough to play up Fiennes' inherent command, only to flip the script on him.

The most memorable Fiennes characters ride a fine line between maniac and professional, with the lines often blurring. Lord Voldemort is an evil wizard hellbent on world dominance, but you get the impression that there is literally no one more capable of pulling that off than him. And his take on the spymaster M in several 007 movies suggests a man who saw his fair share of action and knows what he's talking about when he butts head with James Bond. You believe him when he gives orders. Much like you believe him when he says he's going to kill that Harry Potter kid.

The maniac and the professional

Millions of people saw Fiennes play key supporting roles in those Harry Potter and James Bond movies, and the actor understood the assignment — he lends credence to the fictional world around him, his natural air of inherent professionalism making his characters feel like bonafide threats and genuine support in equal measure. But Fiennes doesn't play too many leading men these days, even as movies like "The King's Men" realize he has untapped movie star/action hero potential (1998's "The Avengers" unfortunately nipped that in the bud for a bit).

But "The Menu" puts Fiennes front-and-center, in a leading role that showcases the terror, humor, and steely confidence that has defined so much of his work. It's a reminder that as much as we love Fiennes in small doses in blockbuster movies, he deserves to be the main attraction. The main course, if you will.

There's a lot to like about "The Menu." It's a blast. But it's impossible to imagine it without Fiennes, consummate maniac, consummate professional, at the center of the chaos.

"The Menu" opens on November 18, 2022.