Film Review – The Dinner
Two boys commit a terrible crime and have yet to answer for it. Two sets of parents meet to decide what to do. Over six courses at an elegant, exclusive restaurant, one defensive front will be tenuously constructed in order to move forward. The Dinner, adapted for the screen from Herman Koch’s novel and directed by Oren Moverman (The Messenger, Rampart), pits four people in increasingly claustrophobic settings as they employ broader and more dramatic techniques to avoid dealing with the crime and its aftermath in an ethical or spiritual sense. If they can move their sons’ actions into a void and fill it with political spin, they can succeed.
Command over the narrative is a constant tug-of-war between two brothers: Paul (Steve Coogan), a former high-school history teacher, and Stan (Richard Gere), a congressman nearing the seemingly victorious end of his gubernatorial campaign. The men harbor a love-hate closeness that constantly seesaws between innate mutual understanding and years of jealousy, competition, and resentment. As Paul and Stan and their respective wives Claire (Laura Linney) and Kate (Rebecca Hall) meet at a posh eatery that would have taken Paul months to reserve a table at, unlike his eminent brother, they face one another like pieces on a chess board, communicating just as powerfully – and viciously – through hand gestures and body language as with words and intonations. At the start of the meal, they are in the main dining room where Stan hobnobs with people at many of the tables, but as the tension and topic of conversation becomes more intense, they move to more intimate quarters.
Periodically, we hear what is going on in Paul’s head, both at dinner and in flashbacks of family life, as he is physically present but mentally distant. He swims in a constant sea of disappointment and disillusionment, envious of his brother’s professional success and closeness with their mother as a child, self-righteous in his career as a public-school educator, bitter in his lack of control and power over his own household. Often, he speaks to no one in particular, and when he speaks too much, his own son tells him to shut up. Being judgmental gives him control as it compartmentalizes people and events and ideas around him, from the eras of world and American history that he has to cover as curriculum to the everyday, faceless, nameless people in his community. Teaching gave him a built-in audience that was forced to listen to him, even if his family won’t, and though his lectures become more unhinged and volatile and his class responds with laughter and mockery, he doesn’t realize this because he is out the door before the repercussions begin.
The constant flashbacks of when the boys were little (they are teenagers now) and Paul at varying stages of mental illness grows confusing at times and distracts from the issue at hand – the crime and how to handle it. We also see it unfold in snippets: Paul and Claire’s son, Michael (Charlie Plummer), and Stan and Kate’s sons Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) and Beau (Miles J. Harvey), are walking home from a party and find an ATM receptacle to get cash for a cab home. Inside, a homeless woman is asleep, which repulses the boys and Michael and Rick start to curse at and taunt her, eventually becoming physically violent. Though Beau runs away, Michael starts flicking lit matches on the woman’s jacket and sleeping bag, which catches on fire and engulfs her. The two remaining boys record everything, including their gleeful commentary, while watching the woman die. Later, Beau finds the footage on one of the boy’s computers and posts it online, demanding they pay for their crimes (Claire naturally assumes he means with money).
During the aperitif and the appetizer courses, Paul commands attention with his blustering and histrionics, which his brother takes in due course. The women initially seem to be ornaments at the beautifully set table, presented with wonderful “food art” and alternately supporting and placating their respective men. Claire is a cancer survivor, something which shook the already unstable Paul to his core when Michael was young; Kate has been a stepmother to Stan’s three children for years after their mother, Barbara (Chloë Sevigny) ran off to an ashram in India. Both women know how to handle their husbands after years of work, and while Claire asserts the dominant role in her relationship from the start, Kate’s power is a slow simmer that she waits patiently to exercise.
Moverman masterfully infuses tiny details into the interactions of his four leads, from Stan leaving his hand in the center of the table just a second longer than everyone else during the toast to the fluctuating seating arrangements of the couples as they leave and come back in frustration, anger, or business. Even the the degrees of natural and artificial light in the different rooms the party of four travel to during their very awkward, very tense dinner affect the atmosphere. Their personal attendant (Michael Chernus) absorbs their petty rudeness and callous brush-offs as a matter of routine (you get the sense that he’s dealt with such trashy behavior before) and commands the wait staff around the table in a claustrophobic circle as the diners squirm and huff. Likewise, Stan’s campaign manager, Nina (Adepero Oduye), is puzzled as to why the dinner was so important the night before his mental-illness bill is due for a congressional vote, but won’t be intimidated into silence while his career is on the line. You also get the sense that she is adept at the tightrope of politics, and it is her job to keep him balanced at such a crucial time.
As the couples move into a small, dimly lit study, the claws finally come out and the men are effectively neutered as the refined behavior in the beautiful dining room burns away to reveal the true mentality and agenda of the loving parents. Having four excellent actors spar in a closed room, their faces illuminated by firelight, makes the layers of deceit and excuses and casual obliviousness and narcissism necessary to “save their sons” play out like chess pieces on a rapidly disintegrating board. Stan wants to go to the police with the truth. Claire wants to rationalize the incident as an accident, arguing that the act was justified because the woman was deranged and threatened their sons. Kate doesn’t want everything she has “built” to be shattered. Paul sits in the corner, withdrawn and bewildered as he listens to his wife’s defensiveness turn to rage. As she condemns the murdered woman, she is condemning him – burning him down to an impotent void.
Initially teary and fragile at the beginning of the evening, Kate’s strategy towards changing her husband’s mind away from seeing both the woman as human and his son as accountable is revealed as undermining his very sense of self as husband, father, and politician. Equally calculating is Claire’s manipulation of Paul towards “handling the problem,” and while the fantastic Laura Linney is terrifyingly magnetic in her scenes in front of the fire, the direction her character takes is so unbelievable that it ultimately bursts the bubble during the asinine final scene. Indeed, the actions of all four adults in the film’s final moments, where they are literally ambling about in different directions after six tightly wound, tightly shot courses, is like a loom suddenly hit with a basketball, its threads torn and flung akimbo.