Revenge is a dish best served cold. Bitter Feast embraces this idea whole-heartedly. Unfortunately I happen to like my food with a bit of spice and variety. Director Joe Maggio has a game cast, a unique hook and a sharp eye. All these strengths come together to give us a tale of culinary horror that is often troubling but never truly compelling.
As the film opens, we find that Chef Peter Grey (James Le Gros) is not in a good mood. He is having trouble living up to the first half of his title as Celebrity Chef. He must endure product placement, marketing strategies and annoyingly perky co-workers when all he wants to do is cook. When he hears that his TV show may be canceled soon, he retreats to his restaurant only to find worse news waiting there. What should be a bustling display of gastronomic splendor is as quiet as a morgue. It seems fitting since his culinary career has freshly expired. This is all thanks to a single withering review by food blogger J.T. Franks (Joshua Leonard) which costs Grey his adoring audience and his restaurant.
Grey heads to his house in the countryside and hatches a plan over one of his elaborate single-serving meals. Before you know it, Franks has been drugged and chained up in Grey's basement. What follows is a most unusual form of torture. Grey wants to teach Franks a lesson by making him eat his words. He makes Franks perform tasks like preparing a perfect over-easy egg (no runny yolks here) or cooking a steak medium-rare. When Franks inevitably fails (cooking in handcuffs under duress will do that), Grey punishes him with starvation and worse. What's worse, you ask? How about a frying pan to the face or some cutlery through one's hand? Grey's mistreatment of Franks and a parallel investigation by Mrs. Franks (Amy Seimetz) and her plucky P.I. (Larry Fessenden) takes the film to its poetic finish.
Bitter Feast starts in such a strong fashion, that it's disappointing to see it lose steam during its second half. I believe this is because of the repetitive nature of Grey's torture tactics. There is never any tension because Grey is always in control. Franks always fails in his tasks and suffers through the atrocities heaped upon him. Suspense comes from uncertainty and there is none of that to be found here. Even the circular climax is heavily foreshadowed by events from Grey's abusive childhood. This brings me to my other issue with the characters themselves. Grey's past is supposed to make him slightly sympathetic (at least at the outset) while Franks is weighed down with a dead son and a failed career as an author. These attempts to humanize them fail miserably because we don't see any glimmers of the men they used to be; the ones worth giving a damn about. They both start the film as bastards until one turns psychotic and the other turns into a screamer.
Despite my difficulties with the central characters, I wouldn't write off the film. For starters, it has an undeniably unique take on the 'test by torture' genre. After the Saw series and all of its elaborate contraptions, it's refreshing to see that the simple act of cooking an egg can be turned into a life or death scenario. Joe Maggio (who also wrote the film) deserves a lot of credit for the clever idea of a chef extracting revenge in a way that exploits his particular skill set. While we're on Grey's character, I want to give kudos to Le Gros for his disturbing turn as a man who has completely given in to his dark side. He is a model of coiled rage waiting to lash out at anyone that gets in his way. Leonard has the thankless job of screaming his lungs out and begging for mercy but does so admirably. Cinematographer Michael McDonough also deserves praise for visually communicating Grey's detachment from normalcy. The sterile shots of him preparing dinner with surgical precision are some of the most chilling in the film.
I suspect Bitter Feast would have been more effective in a shorter format. Stretched out to feature length proportions, it is easy to notice when stagnation sets in. With that said, I can't write screenplays, direct or act. I guess what I'm saying is, I hope Joe Maggio's house doesn't have a basement.
The movie was presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. While the image was fairly clear, I did notice some shimmer in a few of the outdoor scenes. A few of the darker shots also suffered in terms of shadow detail. Other than that, I felt like the image accurately conveyed the color palette (cool blues and lush greens) that Maggio and his crew were going for.
The audio was presented in an English 5.1 mix. This surround mix perfectly carries Jeff Grace's score which was a haunting mix of melancholic plinking piano and aggressive percussion. The entire range of sounds from the eerie silence of forests to the pained screams of anguish came through with adequate force. English SDH and Spanish subtitles were available.
Given the smaller nature of this project, it is nice to see that the disc features an impressive slate of extras. We start things off with a Commentary track. This features contributions by writer-director Joe Maggio, producers Larry Fessenden, Peter Phok, Brent Kunkle, and sound designer Graham Reznick. The first portion of the film is dominated by Fessenden and Maggio since the others haven't joined them yet. Fessenden is the more experienced filmmaker of the two and he graciously guides Maggio with leading questions which lead to discussions around the themes and characters. Their conversation, while illuminating, is a bit low-energy. Things pick up considerably once the others join in for the commentary. As a group, they manage to cover a huge range of topics including technical aspects of the production and other amusing anecdotes. This is definitely a worthwhile listen that only gets better as the film progresses.
Next up, we have a Deleted Scene and Alternate Ending. While the deleted scene doesn't add much to the film, the alternate ending perfectly illustrates how an addition or subtraction of 30 seconds during the climax can change the entire tone of everything that came before it. As presented, the film finishes in a dark place. The alternate ending changes all that by going so upbeat that it almost seems comical. It's good to see it included here but I'm glad the film has its current ending.
A Making Of featurette follows with roughly half an hour of footage. This includes interviews with Maggio and much of the crew including the producers, the cinematographer, the food stylist and the make-up effects artist. Maggio is honest about his past experiences on micro-budgeted films and speaks enthusiastically about his first crack at something a bit grander in scope. He talks about the way that Fessenden solicited him for the project. There is some discussion of the Canon 5D camera that was used due to its low-light sensitivity.
A Mario Batali Interview is also included. Batali has a small but vigorous role in the film as Grey's restaurant financier. This interview conducted by Maggio is short (less than 10 minutes) but gives us enough time to hear the reality of how celebrity chefs (make no mistake, Batali fits the description) respond to food bloggers and negative reviews. Batali is also entertaining thanks to his interest in topics other than food. He speaks intelligently about movies and music which left me wishing that this interview had been a bit longer. We close things out with a series of black and white shots of the cast and crew entitled Feast Portraits. A Teaser and Trailer are also present.
Conceptually, Bitter Feast is cooking with gas. The idea of a pissed off chef exacting culinary revenge on an ornery food critic is unusual. However, the problem lies in execution. Beyond a certain point, the characters run out of things to say to each other so they rinse and repeat the cruelty. If you are fascinated by the world of haute cuisine and the haughty people who occupy it, then the film may hold a special appeal for you. All other can safely Rent It.