I just saw this movie for the first time so I can’t put my finger on what it was exactly about the opening credits that piqued my enthusiasm, but they clued me in immediately to how good this movie was going to be.
Part of it, I know, was that the actors’ names were placed against a montage of preposterous haute cuisine, and I think there were gruesome sounds, especially when a chocolate sauce liquified some ice cream. It set the tone for a psychological thriller filled, necessarily, with suspense, foreboding, and unease.
Cut to a typical teen party with kids drinking, smoking, making out, and just looking generally like children experimenting with adulthood. Soon enough, the cops bust the soiree, and three boys stumble out, looking for something else to do.
Next scene, Steve Coogan and Laura Linney are getting ready for the dinner. Steve’s character is a misanthrope who doesn’t want to have dinner with “the apes,” his politician brother and latest sister-in-law. “I can get behind this,” I thought, because I hate politics.
Laura’s character starts out as sympathetic. She’s smart, supportive, and she loves her husband and son. One of many great details is that while she’s gorgeous, the pants she wears to dinner are out of style, and her eye shadow technique is lacking. She’s naturally elegant, but she lacks the chic that defines her younger sister-in-law, played by a pitch-perfect Rebecca Hall.
The story is nonliner, cutting between the present dinner and the past acts of the diners’ sons. As Richard Gere’s character notes, the boys committed a horrific crime. And only the viewer knows how much delight two of the boys took in their monstrous depravity.
One of the triumphs of this movie is its insidious portrayal of how insidious mental illness can be. As the movie in general fills you with discomfort, a flashback to Coogan and Gere visiting the Gettysburg battlefield heightens the tension. To the degree that during a montage of Civil War iconography, I almost thought about leaving. Flashes of red and purple assault the eye behind layers of statues and monuments and blaring tourist narration and sounds of war–and the style seems almost out of place–but it is very much in place in its aim to show you the reality of one of the men–and to prepare you for the flashbacks and the denouement to come.
As things unfold, you can see things from all sides. But no one’s right, and there is no ideal solution. Gere wants his family to come clean and his son to pay for the crime–because it was so grisly that the boys can never be healthy knowing what they’ve done. The other three adults aren’t thinking about the depth of the crime. They don’t know–or they don’t admit–the savagery, and to protect their kids, they want to let the whole thing blow over. Their reasons vary, but they’re understandable too. Because in what way would the system not make the kids’ futures worse?
The way the movie ends struck me as outstanding. There’s chaos in front of the politician’s house, with one of the kids possibly hurt, and one of the men on the ground with a broken rib, and the resolution unclear, as resolution so often is in life. Because of this–the ambiguity, the catch-22–the sudden cut to nothing was so good that I actually clapped.
Which was not embarrassing, because I was alone in the theater. Partly because it was midnight in a barren suburb, and partly, I think, because the movie has not gotten good reviews.
Before seeing it, I Googled enough to know that it’s gleaned an average of two and a half stars. I saw snippets like “This ‘Dinner’ is spoiled before the appetizer even arrives” [Pat Padua] and “The Dinner’s strong ensemble isn’t enough to overcome a screenplay that merely skims the surface of its source material’s wit and insight.” [Rotten Tomatoes consensus]
The latter in particular I found hard to believe, because it’s not often that Steve Coogan, Laura Linney, or Chloë Sevigny go wrong. I’m sure it happens, but the likelihood of all three ending up in something bad is slim in my mind. Plus director Oren Moverman did I’m Not There, which is a movie that, among many things, got me to think of Richard Gere as someone much more than a star of dipshitty rom-coms.
I think the reason this movie is not well liked is that it makes you almost as uncomfortable as something by Michael Haneke. But if you like movies that blend the elements of Cache and Funny Games with What’s in a Name?–not to mention heavy-hitting family explorations like A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof–this movie is for you.
What makes it uncomfortable is what makes it satisfying. What makes it both is its authenticity in portraying the human experience–for better or for worse.
I’m looking forward to seeing the Dutch and Italian film adaptations of the book by Herman Koch.
Top image: Pretentious Tart by Holly Gramazio