Ruth Paxton’s debut feature A Banquet is filled to the brim with horror that cuts deeper than any slasher ever could while it explores a multitude of real world themes and emotions that will take you on a dizzying ride all the way up to its paralyzing conclusion. Written by Justin Bull and directed by Ruth Paxton A Banquet features a stellar cast of actors, breathtaking cinematography, and a mind-bending plot that will tug at your heartstrings and shake you to your core.
Starring Sienna Guillory (Resident Evil), Jessica Alexander (Get Even series), Ruby Stokes (Una), and Tony award-winner Lindsay Duncan (A Discovery of Witches) A Banquet tells the haunting story of what it means to be a mother during times of extreme grief and overwhelming loss. Holly (Guillory) is the widowed mother to teens Betsey (Alexander) and Isabelle (Stokes). They live in a gorgeous home, Isabelle is a talented figure skater, Betsey is popular among her classmates, and Holly is the perfect homemaker and cooks elaborate and delectable meals for her family every night. They are seemingly perfect. Almost too perfect. Outward appearances are never truly what they seem though and before long the cracks in the family’s shiny armor start to show signaling that tragedy is just around the corner.
“…cuts deeper than any slasher ever could…”
Through perfectly crafted subtext in the script and through Paxton’s direction of such a talented cast, we start to see the inevitable demise of this tight-knit family. Eldest daughter Betsey is nearly done with high school and is struggling to make plans for her future. University does not seem to be something she is interested in, but then again she doesn’t seem to show interest in anything. She has no particular passion or drive for anything until she has a startling revelation while at a party with friends.
As the days go by Holly notices a change in Betsey. Her once lively and strong daughter is now refusing to eat. Not even a morsel. At first Holly ignores it as most would in her situation. She assumes her daughter will give up this charade soon enough, but she quickly realizes that this is much more than just a phase as Betsey continues her hunger strike and the weeks begin to drag by. Not only is Betsey refusing to eat, but food actually starts to make her violently ill. Things are brought to a head when it comes to light that throughout this whole process Betsey has not actually lost any weight yet she continues to get weaker and weaker. What once appeared to be a psychological problem starts to get more and more supernatural and sinister with every passing day. As time seems to be running out Holly must figure out what is happening to her daughter and why she claims she has been “chosen” to fulfill a higher purpose.
Right off the bat, this film hit me as being an allegory for depression and disordered eating brought to light by intense grief. While this is certainly not the most gorey or violent horror film I have ever seen I still found myself pausing quite a few times as I was completely overwhelmed by the relentless pain and suffering that was playing out before me. If you have ever struggled with an eating disorder or have a toxic relationship with food this will be a hard film to watch.
I found myself in tears several times throughout the film and I think Paxton accomplished exactly what she set out to do. She lays out this very nice and sympathetic family of women going through struggles that are very easy to relate to, and then she completely turns everything you think you know on its head to make a broader statement about mother/daughter relationships and mental health stigmas.
“If you have ever struggled with an eating disorder or have a toxic relationship with food this will be a hard film to watch.”
We see three generations of women in this family with Grandmother June (Duncan), Mother Holly, and Daughters Betsey and Isabelle. June and Holly unintentionally pass on their own traumas and anxieties to their children, as all parents do, and that is what makes this film so visceral. Even when at its most outrageous and unbelievable the film is still so incredibly relatable as all of the characters’ struggles are so valid and realistic.
Do you trust your daughters twisted delusions? Are they even delusions at all? Does it really matter? Holly must decide what is more important: her own mental well-being or dropping everything and putting all her faith into her daughter who may or may not be putting on an act. Their relationship is raw, unpredictable, and harsh yet filled with undying love and blind trust just like real-world relationships.
On top of fantastic performances, a super effective script, and a unique directorial style, this film’s cinematography pushes it over the edge into the realm of greatness. There are constant closeups on cooking food, beautifully plated meals, and full mouths chewing. The colors are heavily saturated and vibrant making you feel like you can reach out and grab a bite for yourself. The visuals are accompanied by excellent Foley work like sizzling meat in a greasy pan, crunchy bread being gnashed up by teeth, and forks and knives scraping against ceramic plates. It even borderlines on gross at times. It is a sensory overload, but a necessary one. You cannot help but put yourself in Betsey’s shoes and the persistent images of food become triggering.
A Banquet is not going to be for everyone. Plain and simple. It is a slow burn that leans heavily on the psychological “Arthouse” wave of horror and trusts its audience to be able to handle the subject matter and even dares them to bring their own emotional baggage along for the ride. I needed to take a step back after I watched the film and process what I had just seen. The strong female-led cast was damn near perfection and I truly hope to see more from director Ruth Paxton. It’s been a while since a film has affected me this deeply and I highly recommend giving it a thoughtful and fully open-minded watch.
“…a slow burn that leans heavily on the psychological Arthouse wave of horror..”
Ruth Paxton’s A Banquet, from IFC Midnight, hits select theatre and OnDemand February 18, 2022. Be sure to let us know what you thought of this food-obsessed body horror over on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and in the official Nightmare on Film Street Discord. Not a social media fan? Get more horror delivered straight to your inbox by joining the Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter.