A Banquet delivers on its slow-burning, disturbing atmosphere and emotion, even if they amount to what feels like an unfinished conclusion.
A Banquet is a horror film directed by Ruth Paxton, starring Sienna Guillory (Love Actually, High Rise) as Holly, whose daughter, Betsey (Jessica Alexander), begins exhibiting strange behaviors. She’s freezing up out of nowhere, chanting about some unknown ominous events to come, and refusing to eat yet not losing any weight. As the months go on, Holly grows increasingly torn up as to how to save her daughter, or, as Betsey begins to insist what she’s experiencing is for the best, if Holly even needs to save her daughter.
From the very first scene, Ruth Paxton shows her knack for crafting lingering, uncomfortable sequences bathed in dread. Much of A Banquet scales back on dialogue, only using it when it’s needed and otherwise letting the nightmares unfolding speak for themselves. Said nightmares, of course, revolve around Betsey and her behavior. Jessica Alexander has to convey a lot of pain with just her physical acting. Her trembling body, terrified eyes, and disheveled appearance are more than enough to get under your skin. When she’s forced to eat just a single pea so she won’t starve, you fully believe that it’s the scariest thing for her to do.
Sienna Guillory, in turn, also doesn’t require that much dialogue to convey how frightened Holly is for her child. Holly clearly loves Betsey and wants her turmoil resolved, but the forceful, even humiliating approach she has, including accusing Betsey of corrupting her sister (Ruby Stokes) to demanding her weight be measured twice a day, makes the situation even more unpleasant. You can connect a lot of this to the pressures and anxieties teens face over their futures, something the characters themselves had been thinking about even beforehand. Holly’s mother (Lindsay Duncan) doesn’t help matters either, with her cold demeanor and how bluntly she tells Betsey off for her behavior while clearly not seeing the real problems. This crumbling family dynamic is the core of A Banquet, and it gets you more invested as the film goes on, wondering if there’s any hope left for these people.
A Banquet gets all of that traumatic content across despite how little it really shows the viewer. Betsey sees and experiences a lot, but we usually either don’t see the immediate aftermath, don’t see her react to them, or don’t see them at all. There’s one scene where she walks into the woods, being lured by a blood-red moon, and then we cut to after she’s done with whatever was in there. We have no idea what she saw or heard, but her frightened response is enough to put us on edge. A lot of the sources of trauma are unseen, but that just leaves our imaginations to run wild with what they could be, based on what we do see. The visual discomfort doesn’t come from much grotesque, explicit imagery, but rather cinematographer David Liddell’s minimal lighting and sterile backdrops and sets. CJ Mirra’s eerie score almost becomes too intrusive, but it knows when to pull back and when to go bigger as the tensions rise.
Unfortunately, A Banquet goes a bit too far in concealing information from the viewer. I am generally fine with not getting clear answers in stories like this and being forced to piece together the truth, or even my own interpretation of the truth. But the problem here is that there’s too little information for any proper interpretation. At least, not to a degree that gives the story further substance. The are very few solid clues to lead us in any one direction, and the nature of what’s happening to Betsey is left so vague that we’re left with questions that have nowhere to go. All we know is that she’s refusing and seemingly physically unable to hold down food, she’s constantly suffering from paralysis, and she thinks she was told some unknown destructive fate in the woods that she claims will lead to something better … that’s it. Outside of the final outcome that I won’t give away (which doesn’t provide much information either), that’s all we have to go off of. The beginnings of great concepts are there, but they go no further than that, which makes this script feel somewhat unfinished. And this sadly does compromise the rest of the film and affect what should have been a gut-punch of an ending.
But even though A Banquet doesn’t leave you with as much to think about as it probably wants to, it’s still an engaging film while you’re watching it. The tension, performances, and directing are great enough for me to recommend the film. Just know that you’ll be getting much more out of the experience than whatever the film has to say, as well as a showcase of Ruth Paxton’s great filmmaking talent.
A Banquet opened in Select Theaters, on Digital Platforms and VOD on February 18, 2022. The film will be released on Shudder on April 26.