Boiling Point resists the temptation toward food porn aestheticizing and instead builds a tightly-wound thriller from the anxiety of a working-class existence.
Perhaps more so than any other type of workplace, a restaurant is a painstakingly intricate piece of machinery. Each cog needs to be exactly in its right place, finely-tuned and functional, or the whole system will fall apart, and no matter how efficient the rest is, a broken machine can only hobble on for so long before it collapses — in Philip Barantini’s intimate thriller Boiling Point, collapse it does, and in spectacular fashion. Boiling Point follows Andy (Stephen Graham), the head chef of a high-end restaurant, on the busiest night of the year, and at the end of two months of homelessness. Having been on a downward spiral for that span of time, Andy is intent on clawing his way back to excellence, but as the film unfolds, it seems that the damage is already done, the machine already broken, and there is nothing Andy can do but watch as it grinds to a gutting, inevitable halt.
As the faulty cog, Stephen Graham’s performance as Andy Jones is phenomenally tightly-wound. Graham embodies a very particular vein of British masculinity, prone to quick anger and equally quick apologies, and channels the generation of British chefs that gave the world Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White. It’s a common media archetype that Graham brings life to, emphasizing the fly-or-fall intensity and profound fear motivating the character, and his performance is masterful in and essential to sustaining the tension of the film. Graham’s frenetic intensity ripples out across the supporting cast, mirrored in the performances of Jason Flemyng as Andy’s rival, a former colleague and current TV chef, and Vinette Robinson, as his sous chef, with the trio bringing a hushed fury to the film, casting the stakes as about far more than food or professional success. Boiling Point understands the precarity of the restaurant business, constantly reminding the audience of the financial and socioeconomic consequences of Andy’s failure to keep his restaurant thriving.
The film also understands the presentational wavelength it needs to ride, and instead of indulging in the sensuality of food and the opportunities for aesthetic flourishes, Barantini keeps his focus solely on the interpersonal, straying away from the food industry’s built-in artistry and reveling in its margins. Barantini constructs his kitchen intricately, making a case for every element’s importance, from the potwash all the way up to the head chef, and makes his viewers uncomfortably aware of every detail that can go awry at each of these junctures. Barantini places landmines wherever he can — an allergy, cruel customers at one table, demanding influencers at another, drugs in the kitchen, a food critic arriving unannounced — and develops an acute awareness of all looming threats, every grain of sand primed to bring the whole system down. Not all of these planted bombs go off, but their sheer volume is enough to ratchet tension to discomfiting levels. As Barantini’s camera meanders, drifting from one potential hitch to another, the effect emulates for viewers the kind of cognitive overload one feels when working in food service on a busy, chaotic shift, with little time to ponder each of the night’s disasters. Add to that Barantini’s grasp of the unique insularity and abrasive camaraderie of restaurant work, and the capriciousness inflicted upon every single worker there, and what’s left is a finely executed white-knuckle thriller crafted from the anxiety of a working-class everyday.