Whether you decide the new horror indie A Banquet is in fact a horror film depends upon how wide your net is cast. Genre creates certain expectations, and runs along certain playbooks, after all, and the market for modest horror films is so hot right now that many – Pig, The Believer, The Scary of Sixty-First, Red Moon Tide, John and the Hole, Mosquito State, Ultrasound, etc. – evoke the genre but end up being something else altogether. Often, heady ambiguity is the endgame. Is it a new type of movie, so far unlabeled?

Maybe. Not to be confused with the recent Welsh flick The Feast – another small-bore Brit enigma focused on young womanhood and consumption – A Banquet is a serious, passionate shot at detouring tropes into a new kind of freaky thing. Unfortunately, it’s so determined to avoid landing on a solid concept, it ends up vague and inconclusive. It’s as if debut director Ruth Paxton doesn’t trust genre films to resonate beyond their gotchas, which they are often capable of doing. Her film is wracked with angst, and yet we’re never sure what happened or why.

It’s essentially a four-hander – meaning, a family of women, no meaningful men in sight once the husband-dad succumbs to a terminal illness at the outset. The widowed Mom (Sienna Guillory) is a tightly-wound, OCD nest-maker, obsessively cooking elaborate meals. Teen daughter #1, Betsey (Jessica Alexander), is a Goth-eyelinered grump, silently traumatized by having seen her father die years before. The other two corners of the square emerge slowly: the younger sister Isabelle (Ruby Stokes), unassumingly cheerful and a might zaftig, and the quietly fierce grandmother (Lindsay Duncan), who comes to help when the bad things start to happen.

Things boil down to, frankly, Betsey’s anorexia, initiated mysteriously after she wanders into the woods during a pot-filled party, and has some kind of moment under a red harvest moon. This hardly sits well with Guillory’s arch-chef mom, for whom meal-making is a dogged attempt to heal the family’s wounds on a daily basis. Doctors, shrinks, fights – we’re thinking, anorexia as a metaphor for what? Months go by, and mysteriously Betsey eats nothing and loses no weight, which is when Grandma shows up with a gimlet eye toward the girl’s history of acting out. Eventually, though, minus her gloomy affectations, a beatific Betsey tells her mother, “I’ve been chosen,” suggesting a messiah complex that might just be real. Or something.

The actresses are all 110% invested, and it’s certainly the only movie to ever feature the discovery of unused rolls of toilet paper as a chilling plot point. But Paxton’s invocation of a kind of Pentecostal mindset comes from nowhere – the rest of the film, including that recurring red moon, is pretty secular – and she wallows in overemphasis. Shot per shot, A Banquet subverts its own earnestness with constant, gross-out super-closeups of moist food, in and out of mouths. Runaway subjectivity or not, anorexia sucks, we get it. For every stressed-out instant we share with Guillory – her taut, wired face and alarmed eyes are the film’s most eloquent source of tension – there’s microscopic views of steamed vegetables, and a soundtrack that storms and moans and rumbles like it’s doomsday.

But spoiler: it’s not. Paxton’s film is so indecisive about its ultimate subject that it verges on being half a movie – or a visceral short, like Paxton’s previous six films, pushed beyond its menacing moodiness toward nowhere in particular.

 

 

 

LA Weekly