The Dinner is the kind of film that doesn't feel right for a good majority of the film's two-hour running time, a feeling attributable to the fact that nothing actually is quite right in this riveting adult drama from writer/director Oren Moverman (The Messenger, Love & Mercy) and based upon Herman Koch's equally riveting best-selling novel that takes a familiar set-up, the tension-filled dinner party where secrets are revealed and lives are set aflame, and completely blows that mother up.
Such a set-up was most recently tackled in Polanski's unsatisfying God of Carnage and, arguably, most famously portrayed in the Academy Award-winning Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The Dinner centers around two brothers, Paul (Steve Coogan), a former teacher who lives his life as a sort of metaphor for U.S. history and whose only sense of failure is matched only by the actual truth of his failures, and Stan (Richard Gere), the vastly more successful of the two who's currently a U.S. Congressman in the midst of a likely successful run for governor. The two men have gathered, along with their wives, for a dinner that feels from the outset destined to be filled with tension and and discomfort even before the conversation inevitably begins to fall upon their real reason for gathering.
At the outset, our sympathies are quickly with Paul and his wife Claire (Laura Linney), a classic caretaker meets enabler whose gross dysfunctions are slowly revealed over the course of the film. The two, despite their seemingly bombastic dysfunctional states, appear to be rather dysfunctionally compatible in a way that feels awkward yet strangely endearing. For Stan, on the other hand, image is everything and he's got the trophy wife, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall), to show for it. We rather want to despite the clearly ambitious Stan, though it's hard to begrudge the guy a trophy wife who's completely aware she's a trophy wife and willing to pay that price to live the life she wants to live.
The gathering, in a mansion-set exclusive restaurant where every dinner course is explained in the kind of detail that is dripping with something far beyond pretense, is uncomfortable from the get go and only becomes worse as we begin to learn the reason for their gathering, a repulsive act carried out by both of their sons who, somewhat ironically, have managed to stay friends despite the overt animosity that exists between the two families.
This act, while somewhat obvious fairly early on in the film, isn't truly detailed until toward the film's end and is, indeed, an act that is brought to life with such vivid imagery that it's nearly impossible for it to not haunt you long after the closing credits. Even worse, the act was filmed and placed on social media, a haunting prospect perhaps a tad more haunting due to recent headlines involving Facebook Live. While the video, which has gone viral, appears to protect the two young boys, the two families have ultimately gathered to decide what must be done...should the boys be held accountable for their actions or does one ultimately protect them at any cost and, in the end, risk even greater losses if the truth is discovered?
While The Dinner doesn't always escape its inevitable staginess, Moverman breaks up the tension utilizing mostly effective flashbacks and, in what feels realistic, weaves moments of escape from the tension with brief forays outside the restaurant and in other areas of the mansion when the tension becomes so palpable that we're not at all sure what could possibly happen next.
The Dinner is gifted with a terrific ensemble cast all at the top of their game here. Richard Gere, who portrayed a homeless man in Moverman's last film Time Out of Mind, is given the most complex character to portray here as a politician whose ideals are, in fact, more interwoven into his being than one might expect despite his ability to project them in media soundbytes. Over the course of the film's running time, we begin to gain a deeper understanding of Stan and that initial animosity we felt toward him begins to dissipate. As his wife, Rebecca Hall follows up last year's stellar performance in Christine with an entirely different performance that is just as mesmerizing.
Coogan has long been known as an intelligent funnyman, a guy able to portray comedy and drama yet tending to do so with hints of sarcasm and dry wit permeating every cell of his performance. He plays things surprisingly straight here, a rather clipped American accent constantly hinting at the rage beneath his words and the words being left unspoken. This is a brilliant performance for Coogan, whose character is enabled by his wife and rather obviously loathed by his son. Coogan's Paul lives in his own world, a potentially psychotic one, and it's the kind of entitled isolationism and intellectual justifying that he's clearly handed down to his son in profound ways. Laura Linney is similarly extraordinary here, a classic yet equally dysfunctional enabler taking care of everything and everyone no matter the cost.
Bobby Bukowski's lensing is jarringly intimate yet more in the "Don't sit on the sofa!" kind of way. Bukowski's camera captures the idea that these are people who've been in each other's lives a long time, but they don't really know each other and don't particularly want to. It's the kind of camera work that is so completely immersed into the tapestry of the film that you don't realize its brilliance until you're contemplating the film hours later and can't stop thinking about those images.
There's a darkness dwelling inside The Dinner that is undeniable and it's definitely the kind of film that's more at home on the arthouse circuit than in your neighborhood multiplex. Picked up by The Orchard for distribution after a successful festival run, The Dinner is a riveting adult drama that will have you replaying the film over and over again in your mind as you search for the meaning of it all and come face-to-face with the uncomfortable truths.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic