I’m confident some will find the arthouse ambiguity of Ruth Paxton’s A Banquet insidiously enthralling—unfortunately, that’s not my experience. It’s a film that learns the wrong lessons from A24-bred horror standouts and invests every cent into this “don’t show, don’t tell” application of sorrow. Justin Bull’s screenplay focuses heavily on two acts that seem to be building somewhere, then the credits smash as the third act fizzles away after reaching nothing but a simmer. Fans of quieter horror stories might devour the emotional trauma that meets a tepid possession arc. Still, it’s hard to comprehend A Banquet’s languishing pace—one made even more pronounced by such an unsatisfying finale misfire.
Sienna Guillory stars as Holly, a newly widowed parent left alone with daughters Betsy (Jessica Alexander) and Isabelle (Ruby Stokes). Holly’s invalid husband dies a particularly gruesome death—the bedridden husk of man swallows toxic chemicals and stains his household’s floor with vomit before expiring for Holly and Betsy to discover. Soon after, Betsy loses her appetite and cannot consume food without extreme convulsions. There’s no medical explanation for Betsy’s condition, except—as per her words—that she’s been enlightened and taken over by something unknown. Not exactly the reassurance a mother wants to hear.
A Banquet’s horrors are exquisitely maternal. Holly endures her own mother’s scolding glances while trying to do right for her inexplicably reprogrammed daughter. The fight between Betsy and Holly over stomaching a single oily pea for dinner is the best representation of their struggle—but narrative evolution never blossoms. Betsy isn’t eating, Holly continues to crack after the loss of her ill husband, and Isabelle fights her sister’s “infection.” Rinse and repeat. Everyone is seeking approval (answerless Holly, renewed Betsy), which becomes catastrophic under the guise of supernatural concerns only for so long.
A Banquet suffers from its purgatorial stance between stuffy drama and possession implications, neither fully embraced. Paxton favors an in-between that refuses to commit, which underwhelms outside one nightmare sequence where Betsy becomes a monster slathered in rotten produce (Malignant fans will chuckle). Tension and dread stem from substantial performances considering each character’s vague duress, but execution becomes the template for slow-burn indulgence that’s just—as defined—hopelessly slow. A Banquet comes, goes, makes some statements no louder than a whisper and barely impacts past David Liddell’s imprisoning cinematography, which accentuates a wealthy estate in psychological ruins.
Alexander shines when Betsy loses control of her muscles and senses. The harmful toll of seizures rattles through her bones, and milky eyes staring into nothingness present a tad more of that underutilized horror DNA. A Banquet is at its best when it revels in its bodysnatcher opulence, though minimal and overshadowed by conversations that tell us what we already know. Even at 90-ish minutes, the experience feels too long and without any punch. Incomplete, if you will. There are glimpses of comparably daydreamy thrillers like Come True or The Feast that give themselves to the fantasy of mania, but A Banquet fails to grab attention like these more ambitious companions. It all builds up to a cinematic Irish exit.
If A Banquet were shaved down to a highlight reel, Paxton makes enough of a statement. Under the moonlight, as specters and nature’s fury possess a young girl, there are excitingly chilly compositions of existential dread. But that’s not indicative of the entire ordeal. Our engagement is snuffed out amidst so much dead air, devoid of crispness that breathes easily. It seems formulaic of the wrong formula, and while the prepared deliciousness on Holly’s dining room table offers seductive tastes, each course is served stone-cold due to how long the whole production takes.
Director: Ruth Paxton
Writer: Justin Bull
Starring: Sienna Guillory, Jessica Alexander, Ruby Stokes, Kaine Zajaz, Lindsay Duncan
Release Date: February 18, 2022
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.