Bitter Feast (2010)

Bitter Feast first published by

Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold – but in Joe Maggio’s Bitter Feast, the vendetta of celebrity New York chef Peter Grey (the ever excellent James LeGros) against blogging critic JT ‘The Piehole’ Franks (Joshua Leonard) comes meticulously sourced, prepared and finely cooked. Grey abducts his online tormentor to a house in the middle of nowhere, chains him up in the basement, and sets about taking his captive through a process of ‘rehabilitation’ by making him eat his own words in a series of food-based tasks that come with severe penalties for failure.

If this premise sounds like a straightforward vengeance narrative – with a bit of torture porn added to the pot for spice – Bitter Feast turns out to be an intense character study whose morality, in keeping with the protagonist’s surname, always falls in a nuanced space somewhere between black and white. Franks may be a vicious purveyor of snark, laying into the restaurants that he visits with scathing venom – but this is in part because the loss, a few years earlier, of his young son to leukaemia has left him unmoored from any joy in life, and loathing himself even more than everyone else. Franks’ best weapon against his captor is a despairing indifference to his own life. In other words, Franks is complicated – all at once hero, villain and victim.

Equally complicated is Grey – quick to blame Franks for the loss, in a single day, of his television cookery show and his position as head chef at swanky Williamsburg restaurant Feast, but unable to acknowledge that his own pompous intransigence has played a big part in his downfall. Franks may have reserved his most bullying and nasty critiques for Grey, but we also know, from a flashback in the film’s prologue to Grey’s childhood, that Grey has past form in responding to bullying with deadly rage. Grey claims to want to teach Franks a lesson in obeying social rules and experiencing basic empathy for others, while his own employment of formal, even pedantic language and a neat-and-natty range of outdoor gear suggests that he is offering himself up as an exemplar of civilised conduct (in contrast with Franks). Yet it is clear that, beneath Grey’s veneer of fussy propriety there lurks a straightforward sadist, lacking in the very human qualities that he so didactically preaches, and unafraid to implicate into his increasingly unhinged plans some innocent outsiders – like the private investigator William Coley (played with typically scuzzy brilliance by Larry Fessenden, also a producer on the film) and Franks’ wife Katherine (Amy Seimetz).

Grey’s attempts to turn the tables on his chief critic also involve rôle reversals and exchanges of identity. Not only has Grey borrowed from his big brother an outlook that divides the world into creators (ostensibly people like himself) and destroyers (like his brother, and Franks), but he is soon reenacting, with Franks, the brutal game-like scenarios that his own brother had once imposed on him in the same woods – only this time with Grey himself playing the fraternal part of merciless hunter, and Franks the hapless quarry. Without realising (as we do) that Franks is himself subject to below-the-line commentary (“You should throw yourself on a grenade”, etc.) as nasty as any of his own written critiques, Grey takes it upon himself to force Franks to cook (not a required skill of a food critic) in far from ideal circumstances, and then presents his own take-down “review” of the results. The irony here is that Grey is becoming precisely what he condemns, as the careful symmetry of his vengeance also undermines any justification of it.

Before making Bitter Feast, Maggio already had three features under his belt (Virgil Bliss, 2001; Milk and Honey, 2003; Paper Covers Rock, 2008), and he had no doubt had his share of encounters with criticism, positive or otherwise – yet this film is far harder on its artist than on its critic, while showing the capacity in either for both creation and destruction. The worst it has to say about Franks is that he is a self-hating arsehole, and a novelist manqué – but Grey’s bitterness runs deeper, as the film offers an ad hominem deconstruction of his character that exposes all his very worst faults. Still, Bitter Feast will probably make film reviewers think twice before doing a hatchet job on it.

Summary: Lots of food for thought in this troubling clash – and slash and dash – between a chef and his critic.

© Anton Bitel