The Dinner (2017)

  • Time: 120 min
  • Genre: Drama | Mystery | Thriller
  • Director: Oren Moverman
  • Cast: Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall

Storyline:

Two brothers and their wives meet up at a haute-cuisine restaurant to discuss what to do about a horrific crime that their sons committed together. As the quartet debate their options, the conversation reopens old wounds between the siblings.

2 reviews

  • The Dinner
    This film doesn’t end. It just stops. As if in mid-sentence. It’s like the abrupt end to The Sopranos, rejecting the reactionary and inane wrap-up to Breaking Bad.
    The open end is necessary because the moral, social and psychological issues the film sets in motion are too complex and too shifting to settle into any easy resolution. The closest we get to a conclusion is the closing song: “Don’t let the fuckers get you down.” Even that is ambiguous.
    Richard Gere gets top billing as Stan Lohman, the congressman about to be elected governor. But his psychologically damaged younger brother Paul (Steve Coogan) has arguably the more central role and conveys the key line: “We make war for love.”
    As a high school history teacher Paul teaches Gettysburg, the beginning of the end — (i) of the civil war, and (ii) of a society securely rooted in values and moral certainty. Of course the Civil War was fought for economics as much as anything else. But the soldiers thought they were fighting for conflicting loves: the mythologized glory of the Old South vs the valiant ideal of egalitarian freedom.
    Paul is a savage, it turns out, as we see in his two classrooms rants where his rage and cynicism overrun any academic decorum. As he early tells us, he prefers the heroic days of ancient Greece and Rome, the pagan energies, over the Dark Ages and ensuing silly niceties of modern times.
    That’s why the two brothers and their families take this slugfest to the ultra-expensive chichi restaurant. The setting makes this another exploration of Civilization and its Discontents. As the two couples debate how to treat their sons’ savagery the maitre d’ recites the pedigree of each ingredient. This is an extensio ad absurdum of the refinements of civilization and the rewards of its privileged.
    Paul is uncomfortable there, in part because he can’t afford it, he doesn’t understand it, and he feels as excluded from this ritual as he felt from his mother’s preference for Stan. If he seems sensible in disdaining the manners and the preciousness, he’s ultimately just destructive and rude.
    Stan is easy in that precious milieu, gliding through the crowd of Washington Insiders. His slickness tempts us to dismiss him. But when he decides to abandon his career and bring his son to justice Stan represents civilization at its moral best.
    The brothers’ different responses to the dinner cohere with their different responses to their sons’ brutal and mindless murder of a homeless black woman, burning her alive in an ATM booth. To our surprise, the slick politico wants his son to face judgment. The total strategist suddenly places morality and principle above expediency. In contrast, his more cynical — and less capable of action — brother decides to preserve the sons’ secret by setting out to kill Stan’s adopted black son, Beau, who has decided to turn in the two boys.
    Both mothers fiercely try to protect the boys against Stan’s eruption of morality. Claire (Laura Linley) tries to settle the matter without involving hubby Paul, arranging to pay off Beau for his silence. When he changes his mind, she orders Paul to “look after Beau” — a demand about as motherly as Lady Macbeth.
    Stan’s wife Katelyn shares Claire’s commitment to save the boys, even though they’re only her step-sons. Hungry to save their sons the mothers demonize and wholly misrepresent their innocent victim. Despite this difference, both woman are the supportive roots of their husband’s lives. The fierceness of maternal love bonds the women in contrast to their husbands’ antagonism.
    Here the film seems most reflective of Trump’s America. In the mothers insistence upon protecting their own family interests above all law and morality, they are Republicans at their most acceptable. Paul slips into their position, off his meds, too weak and confused to resist. But the moral hero is the politician Stan, who places conscience and justice ahead of his own and his family’s interests. That’s the liberal politician, an endangered species in Trump’s America.
    Hence Stan’s campaign for a bill to grant the mentally afflicted the same health coverage as the physically ill get. This echo of Obamacare — and slap at Trumpcare — also reflects on how Stan grew out of his own mother’s madness, which persists in Paul. The figure we initially reject — the slick Stan, Washington Insider — turns out to hold the moral center. This film posits a liberal humanity against the Trump ethos.
    But it’s not an easy choice. Which is the villain: the mother who will do anything to protect her son or the father who places justice and morality over this personal interests? The film ends before the three-day delay Stan grants his wife to try to change his mind. We don’t know how that family’s drama will end. Nor should we, given the complexities of the drama at the family, national and archetypal levels.
    But if we’re responsible citizens we’ll try to figure out what we would do in that position. It’s not easy.
    Beau being black replays the Civil War issues in the present moment. The black and white societies remain locked in mutual suspicion and guilt. Paul read even the younger Beau as manipulative and subversive, playing “the race card” to his own advantage. At the tragic ATM scene Beau has the conscience to walk away — but the cunning and self-service whether to blackmail the others or to turn them in. The black boy is given no sentimental support here, played as a fat, awkward outsider ultimately serving only himself. The name Beau is ironic because it evokes the white gentlemen of Tara not their slaves.
    The older Lohman brothers also carry resonant names. Like Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, Stan and Paul are tragic heroes driven to destroy themselves for their contradictory senses of what will best serve their sons, their selves. In matching reversals, the successful doer (Stan) here prioritizes principle over politics and the more theory-bound brother, history teacher Paul, becomes a man of action when he’s poised to kill Beau.

  • Published in 2009, Herman Koch’s international bestseller The Dinner has already been adapted three times for the big screen: a 2013 Dutch-language film directed by Menno Meyjes, a 2014 Italian-language version directed by Ivano De Matteo, and now an English-language adaptation initially intended to be Cate Blanchett’s directorial debut but ultimately helmed by writer-director Oren Moverman.

    It’s not too difficult to understand why Koch’s work would attract so much interest. Told from the perspective from an increasingly unreliable narrator, the tale seems simple enough: two couples gather over a multi-course dinner to discuss a terrible incident involving their children. Yet there’s far more to digest as the evening unfolds. Like Carnage, Roman Polanski’s 2011 film adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage, The Dinner is essentially a four-person chamber piece that wonders how far parents would go to protect their children. Similarly, Moverman’s work provides four extremely talented actors with complex and substantial material for them to sink their teeth into.

    The quartet in question are Stan (Richard Gere), a congressman in the midst of running for governor, his much-younger second wife Kate (Rebecca Hall), and brother Paul (Steve Coogan) and his wife Claire (Laura Linney). Paul is reluctant to go to the dinner, not wanting to deal with his brother, in whose shadow he has lived, and his self-serving lifestyle. Indeed, once Paul and Claire arrive at the fashionable restaurant, he wastes no time in targeting everything from the ridiculously serious presentation of the food and drinks (“Can you taste the wars and famines?” he wonders as an array of international hors d’oeuvres are brought) to Stan’s glad-handing of the other notable figures in the restaurant. There’s a toxicity that hangs in the air and it’s clear that this is no ordinary dinner.

    The real reason for the gathering is to discuss their sons, who have committed a horrific act against a homeless woman. Paul is in the dark about the crime and reacts badly to learning that Claire has known about it from the start. Stan wants the boys to confess and face the consequences of their actions. Both women are fiercely against it: Claire doesn’t believe he should jeopardise their futures, whilst Kate, also mindful of the impact of the reveal on her husband’s political career, pointedly tells Stan that he would do more good as governor than he ever could as a husband or father. Stan may be doing damage control, but there’s something far greater motivating him, namely a chance to do something about the mental illness that has plagued his family, Paul in particular.

    Moverman explored mental illness in his previous work, the criminally underrated Time Out of Mind, and his ability to draw out how frightening it must be to live with such an illness as well as the difficulties of others having to deal with that unstable mentality is without equal. Moverman doesn’t sensationalise but rather matter-of-factly observes – look no further than a scene showing an agitated Paul talking on the phone. There’s a bloody handprint on the window that is almost unnoticeable and then Moverman reveals a mirror, its glass cracked and bloodied, as Paul goes to open the door for Stan. Leeching the scene of its potential melodrama only makes it more distressing.

    That said, Moverman’s detached and characteristically expressionistic approach doesn’t always benefit the material. It takes far too long for the narrative to directly address the main issue and the multiple flashbacks often distract rather than enhance. Though he does a fine job of keeping audience allegiance shifting from one side to the other, the plates are kept spinning far longer than needed.

    Gere delivered one of his all-time best performances under Moverman’s watch in Time Out of Mind, and so too does Coogan here in The Dinner. It’s no exaggeration to call what the comedian does revelatory. He fully inhabits the perpetually malcontented Paul, and his often hostile portrayal repels audience sympathy even as it elicits a modicum of understanding. It’s as bleak and detailed a portrait of a lost soul as one will ever see committed to the screen.

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