Horror

[TIFF Review] ‘A Banquet’ Tests Maternal Bonds and Patience in Simmering Psychological Horror

Existing somewhere at the crossroads of Jack Ketchum’s “The Box” and Rose Glass’s Saint Maud lies A Banquet. A strange affliction wreaks havoc on the lives of a family still on the mend from tragedy. Ruth Paxton’s feature debut favors a slow simmering atmosphere in a psychodrama that sees a family in psychological deterioration. One that can test the audience’s patience as much as it does its lead characters.

Holly (Sienna Guillory) puts on a brave face to raise her daughters alone after losing her husband to a horrible illness. Putting all of her focus onto caring for them means she’s put off processing the psychological impact of caregiving. She’s not the only one; teen daughter Betsey (Jessica Alexander) witnessed her dad’s final, painful gasps, yet she hasn’t once spoken about its effect on her. The family clings tightly to any semblance of normality, at least the pretense of it, but it all unravels when Betsey becomes convinced that her body no longer belongs to her. She’s lost her appetite entirely and claims she’s now a vessel to a higher power. It causes intense friction in the family and tests everything Holly thought she knew about her daughter and herself.

Paxton’s vision is methodical, deliberate, and meditative. So is the lead character, Holly. Holly operates on structure. It’s evident in the sterile, contemporary home. It’s conveyed in the meticulous way Holly prepares carefully plated and ultra-healthy meals for her daughters, worthy of a fine dining food stylist. It’s in the way she carefully scrapes away all of the peas on Betsey’s plate as she bargains with her to eat. By contrast, Betsey’s every bit the messy adolescent that’s testing boundaries and dabbling in vices. At least until the fateful, off-screen event that robs her of her being.

A Banquet looks inward, more interested in the interior workings of this family’s decay and Holly’s confrontations with both her teen and herself in pursuit of answers. Paxton and writer Justin Bull refuse to give up answers easily. That means that the horror doesn’t come easily either; it’s a slow-burn in every sense. That also means that when the horror does come, its impact hits harder. Paxton tests your gag reflexes with one jolting sequence of body horror that makes you wish she injected more moments of grotesque surrealism throughout.

It’s a heavily stylized and often cold depiction of psychological unraveling, and Paxton leaves much unspoken. There’s no hand-holding here, and it requires patience and reading between the lines. For many, the horror might be too subtle for long stretches to reward. It doesn’t help that Guillory plays Holly with the aloofness befitting of her character, making her arc a bit too restrained in many ways. The point is clear, especially when Holly’s mother (Lindsay Duncan) enters the equation.

Repressed trauma and its ripple effects play out in a very peculiar, disquieting way. Stylish filmmaking and the use of culinary delicacies in a feature where a teen refuses, or can’t, eat makes for a visually intriguing first effort. It builds ever so slowly into a third act that occasionally revolts and certainly offers more food for thought. But that meal may not fully satiate.

A Banquet premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and has been acquired by IFC Midnight.

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