Andy (Stephen Graham), head-chef of up-market restaurant Jones & Sons, faces numerous crises on a hectic night at work: a health inspection that has downgraded his business’ rating; a seething atmosphere among unhappy and stressed staff, not least sous-chef Carly (Vinette Robinson) and front-of-house manager Beth (Alice Feetham); difficult customers who run the gambit between irritating to racist; and the unannounced arrival of Andy’s old mentor Alistair (Jason Flemyng), arm-in-arm with a major food critic (Lourdes Faberes). As things spiral out of control, Andy must somehow try to survive the nights difficulties while facing his own personal demons.
This is a tough watch. Based on a short film from director Philip Barantini, Boiling Point is a film that has no pretensions about showcasing the sheer anxiety, stress and awfulness of this particular working environment, but of course it isn’t just this working environment: the way that it gets you is how it will remind of somewhere you worked, or somewhere you do work. There are no easy answers to some problems, no happy endings for a lot of people, no light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a very potent kind of misery on screen. But, it is a very good, very timely, and very important film, for a whole lot of reasons.
So important is the deeper message and allegory that I think Boiling Point is trying to portray that in some ways it is frustrating that the most many people want to talk about when it comes to the film is the manner in which it is shot. The one take format, albeit slightly diluted down by numerous, though quite cleverly done, cutaways to various plots or sub-plots (one, where a minor employee takes the bins out back and then scores drugs from a waiting car, was somewhat superfluous, but served its purpose) is of course interesting, and the way that there is no let-down in performance during the course of it is to be admired. But then again these are professional actors, the vast majority of which will be used to the stage wherein they are probably required to be “on” for a lot longer. Perhaps I sound harsh, but for me something like the faux one-shot approach to 1917 or Birdman, or the actual one-shot of Russian Ark, is more impressive to me from a visual perspective because of the incredible environment it is being used in in the first instance, or the otherworldly story being told with the technique in the second or the enormous pageantry and coordination of the third. In Boiling Point, while it aids the establishment of a frenetic feeling, it honestly is a bit of a gimmick, that makes you think the writers and crew didn’t have as much faith in the material as they ought to have had, and it doesn’t really add to the experience as much as you think that it would.
But, enough of that, onto the show. If there’s one thing to take away from Boiling Point, it’s that we are all facing our own stresses and malfunctions, even if some of us are hiding them better than others. It’s remarkable how the film, despite its limited running time, is able to show that as a simple reality, and then put it against the perception that some people have of others. Don’t be so quick to form simplistic viewpoints of the people you work with, seems to be the message: the junior pasty chef assistant in the back is an unreliable youth, then suddenly you see that he has been self-harming; the meat chef is a brash, disrespectful malcontent, but then again he alone has the bravery to call certain things as he see’s them; the front-of-house leader is a snotty, social-media obsessed micromanager, but has a hidden fragility that she deliberately tries to keep from everyone else at all costs; even the annoying guy who turns up an hour late for his job washing dishes turns out to have a heroin addiction. On a larger level, the chic restaurant that seems like a wonderfully run operation serving the finest of cuisine is a hairs breath from self-destructing: and ignorant or rude behaviour from you over some half-imagined slight might just be the spark the gunpowder needs.
I have worked in the service industry, and like anyone who has I have stories. I could talk about the customers who stole, I could talk about the management who were immensely incompetent, I could talk about the impression that staff were numbers and not people, I could talk about the place that, in the midst of a closing down sale, attracted people content to shout at you because the 90% off wasn’t enough. It was character building, but that’s about all it was: there are days in those jobs, where dehumanisation is the only description, that will be etched in my head, core memories ala Inside Out, until the day I die. Forget the one-shot approach, it’s immaterial: Boiling Point grabbed me because it happened to me, in a different location, with different people, but I was there.
There are toxic workplaces, and then there are toxic workplaces: the kind of environment where the perfect combustible elements are thrown together and then heat is applied. Boiling Point is going to speak to a lot of people I think, veterans, and survivors, of similar workplaces. Maybe you’ve been micromanaged too much, maybe you’ve dealt with bosses who are too prone to bending over backwards for social media, maybe you’ve been yelled at for no good reason, maybe you’ve been expected to put up with nasty people, maybe you were made to fell like your contribution was not enough in a job you should feel privileged to have. I know I’ve been in some of those situations. Boiling Point captures them perfectly, with their sense of dread, inevitability and inescapable anxiety. There are genuinely moments when what is occurring seems to stray the line between fiction and non-fiction, and it’s obvious that the people who made it have experience working in the food business.
It all swirls around Graham’s Andy. Boiling Point is an actor’s showcase and there are no bad performances, with Robinson the other major standout. But Merchant is something else. This is his baby, from the moment his Andy arrives in the door apologising to his ex-wife on the phone for missing a major event in his son’s life all the way through to the moment when he disintegrates entirely. He captures a wide range of emotions throughout the 90 minutes, from furious anger to meek surrender: an especially potent scene see’s him ignoring the health inspector’s comments on faulty record-keeping to focus on a relatively minor kitchen cleanliness problem, the only thing he is capable, in that moment, of truly grasping. He’s a man who just wants to make good, on the only craft he knows how to do, but everything he carries in his mind is liable to bear him down and bury him. Case in point: the non-descript plastic bottle he routinely swigs out of is something we very quickly realise isn’t filled with water.
But then things get really nasty, and your heart starts to ache for these people, whether its the waitress being subjected to bigoted comments from an oafish big spender, the front-of-house forced to kowtow to a customer who wants to go off-menu on the back of a large Instagram following, the young French chef who can’t deal with Andy’s rapid-fire scouse accent or the celebrity chef who wanders into the restaurant with his own ulterior motives. There’s a moment where one character has had enough of another and launches into a tirade that incudes the vicious putdown that nobody likes their target, the kind of comment designed to wound in the short-term but fester in the long term; Andy just looks on awkwardly as it takes place, knowing what is happening is wrong but perhaps also knowing that to intervene would be useless as Cnut in front of the tide. The indignation, the humifaction, the expectation that you must swallow your pride every given second, it’s all burning through every minute of the production.
It’s hard not to see a very potent allegory for our modern capitalist system in all of this. Allegory might even be the wrong word, this is just a spotlight of such a system, and the ay it compels people to work harder than they are able to push themselves harder than they should have to push, and to routinely sacrifice their personal lives and mental health in pursuit of meagre profit. It’s no surprise at all when we learn that there is a financial black hole at the heart of Boiling Point that is sucking in several characters. You want to tell each and every person in Jonees & Sons to pack it in and walk away, but what’s waiting for them elsewhere? The addictions, the nastiness, the strain and the never-ending societal expectation that you wear yourself down in employment will still be there. The humiliations that service industry staff will forever be expected to deal with will still be there. The sense that any character is moments away from a full blown panic attack will always be there.
And the film, bravely I would deem, does not veer from its course. The ending is downbeat and difficult to swallow, indicating nothing in the way of hope, for anyone employed at Jones & Sons, or for the business itself. I have to applaud Barantini for going with this avenue, divorced from similarly toned films in the past that tend to always allow for a ray of light in its conclusion, but what Boiling Point goes for means that everything is just that bit more impactful.
I’ve spoken briefly on the visual element of Boiling Point already, but I will return to the subject briefly. The third of four takes filmed on the brink of the pandemic, it looks good: I’m not sure whether this set was in a real restaurant or was mocked up, but it captures the feel of an up-market eatery quite well with its moody lighting, open kitchen and occasional sense that what you are seeing is a well set-up façade. It’s matched quite well with the harsh lighting of the deeper kitchen, or the total darkness of the exterior. Barantini’s camera is well choregraphed in its movements, and the cinema verite style is employed beautifully in scenes where multiple characters are forced to listen to the tirade of another. This could almost be classed as a mockumentary: it’s like the kind of thing Kitchen Nightmares would love to see happen in front of its camera, captured in a similar style.
There are a few elements of Boiling Point that I wasn’t able to engage with, not least the nature of its filming and a few of the more predictable plot points (one involving a lantern hung nut allergy early on seems especially predictable). But it is in everything else that really excels. This is a searing exploration of workplace stress in the modern age, filled with great performances, writing and mood-setting. It’s the kind of film that is such a pitch perfect roasting of employment practises nowadays that I am tempted to say it should be required viewing for anyone that has ever, or has pretensions to, run their own business or manage another person. If it does absolutely nothing else, Boiling Point is a stern reminder of the humanity that exists in every service industry position, who deserve more than they frequently get: be good to your service staff folks. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Vertigo Releasing).