Few phrases are as chilling as the words, “I don’t care…”
…I don’t care about me. I don’t care about you. I don’t care about anything. What do you do when one of your loved ones sinks into a cold pit of depression so far down, you can no longer see them in the darkness of it? There’s no right answer, which is the unsettling truth which director Ruth Paxton explores in her debut feature, A Banquet.
Written by Justin Bull, A Banquet takes place after the loss of Holly’s (Sienna Guillory) husband to cancer. Left alone with her teen daughters Betsey (Jessica Alexander) and Isabelle (Ruby Stokes), Holly is doing her best to keep her family together. But when Betsey suddenly stops eating after a strange encounter in the woods (and during the night of a blood moon, no less), Holly finds her family beginning to crumble. The more Holly attempts to get her daughter to eat, the more she begins to uncover the terrifying realization that there is something even darker than Betsey’s lack of appetite at play.
It’s only February, but A Banquet may end up being one of the most disturbing films of the year.
Right from the opening frames, it’s obvious that A Banquet is not a film for the weak of stomach. We meet Holly, exhausted and trying to bring her husband some comfort as he coughs relentlessly. CJ Mirra’s haunting score creeps in like a whispering ghost, setting a chilling tone. Grim as the scene is, it’s nothing compared to the squishy, slurpy, utterly nauseating sound design that’s prominent all throughout. Being a film focused on eating, Paxton incorporates disgusting close-up after disgusting close-up of chewing. A Banquet gets you squirming in your seat like a roly poly trying to hide and it never stops picking at whatever comfort bubble you’ve built for yourself.
Learn to be uncomfortable. A Banquet spits in the face of your comfort.
Outside of maybe a few very brief instances early on, there is not one second of A Banquet that is easily digestible. A grey cloud hovers over this family trying to move on from their father, sucking the life out of everything. David Liddell’s gorgeous cinematography is heavily textured, with deep shadows that feel as if they’re gradually consuming all of the light as the film moves along. Paxton enhances that feeling by including the occasional color that is rich and beautiful and pops off the screen, a bit of life still present. Lipstick, clothing, they defy the darkness closing in.
For a little while, at least.
Yet nothing is as bright or tempting as the food. The food channel has nothing on some of the more edible imagery. These moments are sex for the eyes. I could practically smell the bacon cooking in one scene. It’s intentionally ironic, because Paxton is using these shots to not only mock Betsey, but the audience as well. For as beautiful as it looks, every scene involving food is filled with cringey sounds and a tension as thick as a T-bone that gnaws at your nerves. The more Betsey won’t eat, the more Holly pushes. Themes of depression and teenage pressures that can cause eating disorders like anorexia are the centerpiece of this buffet of suspense, and it’s absolutely devastating to watch Holly try to get Betsey to eat even a single pea.
Speaking of Holly, the entire cast in A Banquet serves up a dish of mesmerizing performances. Guillory exudes tragic desperation in an effort to save her daughter that makes you want to scream along with her. She gets you to feel just as frustrated, confused, and frightened of Betsey, played with a cold eeriness by Alexander that devours the soul. Stokes perfectly captures the uneasiness of a younger sister caught between Holly and Betsey’s conflict, while Lindsay Duncan also makes a memorable impression as Holly’s mother, June. A Banquet fills you up with dread, but this is a character piece first and foremost, and this cast is more than up to the task of the difficult roles they take on.
For those of you worried that A Banquet will be too gross to handle, this isn’t that kind of movie. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t stomach-churning moments, but the true terror of Bull’s script is in exploring the awful dread of depression and how it works like a possession, eating a family from the inside out. Paxton doesn’t aim for the gross out. Instead, she aims for those moments that shake you to your core with Holly struggling to retrieve the daughter she knew from the grasp of whatever has hold of her. A Banquet sits in your stomach like a sinister balloon that expands until your belly is about to burst. It isn’t as nasty as it may sound, but the sheer weight of its themes make it a difficult, painful watch nonetheless.
A bowl full of existential dread, A Banquet is a ravenous film that feeds on your uneasy fear. Gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, and deeply unnerving, it’s unlike anything else you’ll see this year. The third act threatens to derail the experience with some underwhelming and even hokey moments, but altogether it’s a dish served cold that will leave you shaking. It’s astounding that this is the debut feature from Paxton. With A Banquet, Paxton has proven to be a talent to be reckoned with, and I can’t wait to take a bite out of whatever she does next.
A Banquet arrives on VOD February 18th from IFC Midnight.
By Matt Konopka