By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
Culinary thrillers and dramas are having a bit of a moment right now. The likes of FX’s The Bear and Searchlight Pictures’ The Menu are enthralling audiences with the tension-filled stories they’re dishing out, making the intersection of high-brow restaurants and refined movies/shows one of the more intriguing thematic combinations in recent years.
The latest installment in this growing, niche sub-genre is What You Wish For, an unnerving culinary thriller screening at the UK horror festival FrightFest and Austin’s Fantastic Fest. Written and directed by Nicholas Tomnay, the film follows a down-on-his-luck chef named Ryan (played by Terminator 3’s Nick Stahl), who flees to Latin America to escape mounting gambling debt. While abroad, Ryan stays with an old culinary school friend, who inadvertently introduces Ryan to the world of cooking for the über-rich.
What You Wish For is the kind of twisty psychological thriller whose array of narrative twists and turns means the audience is constantly reevaluating what the movie is about. Writer/direct Nicholas Tomnay (best known for helming the underrated and disturbing dark comedy horror The Perfect Host) shrouds the film in mystery and intrigue from the get-go, introducing a subdued main character clearly running from someone. There’s always a secret to uncover or a mystery to unfold, which makes for the type of relentlessly entertaining film that demands your continued attention.
In equal measure with intrigue is a palpable sense of tension and suspense, especially as the film progresses and the depths of the story are unveiled. Deliberate, rather than downright slow, pacing allows for tension to build without ever becoming boring. Coupling this with a small collection of characters and What You Wish For ends up as an intimate psychological thriller that eventually goes into horror territory. To discuss the plot any further would be a disservice to a film that, like Barbarian or Malignant in recent years, is best enjoyed knowing as little as possible heading into it.
Leading the film is Nick Stahl, known for his role as John Connor in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Stahl plays a subdued, shady lead character, whose gambling debts are catching up to him and have led him to flee to South America. Stahl certainly has a captivating on-screen presence, which is important given that the events of the film unfold entirely from his perspective. Unfortunately though, there’s an emotional distance between Stahl’s lead character and the audience. As the plot progresses and the film’s events become increasingly shocking, Stahl remains resolute and relatively unfazed. This was obviously a conscious choice from Stahl and Tomnay to have a lead who isn’t extraordinarily reactive to the situation around him, but it’s one that emotionally keeps Stahl’s character at an arm’s length from the audience.
All of this culminates in a final act that impressively evokes the intensity of some of the most suspenseful scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. This coincides with the introduction of Randy Vasquez (Bosch, Shameless) as Detective Ruiz, whose suddenly sizable role turns the movie on its head. Again, to go into any greater detail would potentially breach into spoiler territory, but the Tarantino-esque intensity that writer/director Tomnay evokes is commendable.
What You Wish For continues the past year’s impressive streak of culinary thrillers and dramas following The Bear and The Menu. This particular dish is one with twists and turns every step of the way and plenty of intrigue and suspense in equal measure. Terminator 3‘s Nick Stahl is an effective, albeit subdued lead in a deliberately paced, intelligent psychological thriller that is best experienced without spoiling anything.