The incredibly disturbing and often frustrating film “The Dinner” can at times come across as pretentious, obnoxious, and distressing: but that’s the point. In what will definitely not be everyone’s cup of tea, the movie plays with your emotions, prejudices, and expectations in a way that is emotionally effective — if also a little bit off-putting.
Based on the novel by Dutch author Herman Koch, the movie tells the story of four adults (all with varying degrees of despicability) who come together at a fancy restaurant for dinner and a heated familial discussion. The smooth and suave Congressman who is running for Governor, Stan (Richard Gere); his driven wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall); Stan’s estranged younger brother Paul (Steve Coogan); and Paul’s resilient wife Claire (Laura Linney). Something appalling has happened in the family, and there’s not much agreement on how to deal with it.
Coogan is absolutely fantastic as the mentally ill former teacher, a broken, cynical man who so desperately longs to be better but refuses to take his medication. Over the course of the dinner, his agitation builds until he’s pushed to his breaking point. Coogan is intense, raw, and gives the standout performance in the film. Linney brings an understated complexity to her role as his cancer survivor wife, and Hall adds powerful depth as the put-upon yet ambitious spouse of a political career professional.
The transformation of both women during the unpleasant evening is what hit me the hardest, even though these are a group of (mostly) truly despicable human beings. They’re grossly uncivilized people who are hiding behind the mask of entitlement and civility, a group that as a whole views those lesser than them to be disposable.
The story plays with your assumptions because nothing is exactly as it seems. As the true nature of the characters are slowly exposed one by one, get ready for some surprises and shattered expectations. All of these people are seriously and deeply flawed, but all want to protect their family and will go to great lengths to do so. This is a psychological thriller that takes its time, a film for thinkers who don’t like to be rushed. For this reason, many people will find this dialogue-heavy film to be a bit slow. I didn’t at all. The pacing is as effective as the unsettling, tangled, non-linear storytelling.
The fashionable restaurant increasingly becomes an even more uncomfortable setting as the sympathetic staff is verbally abused and berated by their guests. One waiter dutifully returns to the hostile table again and again to introduce each new course with the formal pomp and circumstance of “locally garden grown organic vegetables with imported Himalayan sea salt,” unaware of what’s really simmering unsaid between the clients at the table. It serves as the perfect mirror of the shallowness and self-importance of the entitled elite, especially as things begin decaying with increasingly ferocious bickering.
Director Oren Moverman plays with sound in clever ways, including the unsettling, relentless ding of an iPhone during the most heated and intense moment of the film. He also purposely muddles some conversations and effectively lets the audience hear the endless patter that fills Paul’s head on a daily basis. At times the sound design very much reminded me of the overlapping dialogue style of the late director Robert Altman, where you not only have to pay attention with your eyes but also with your ears.
Overall this can be a challenging movie to watch, a two hour sharp-tongued, head-on exploration of moral complexity from two upper class, privileged, and deplorable couples. The script is abrasive, caustic, and filled with plenty of nasty verbal altercations. As the story drifts in unexpected directions, you’ll find yourself questioning everyone’s motives and reevaluating your own expectations.
I love a work of art that serves up some unanticipated surprises along the way while also encouraging me to engage every corner of my brain, and “The Dinner” delivers.