Imagine your child did something terrible. Truly deeply atrocious. Creating the kind of secret that can’t be told without tearing down lives and shattering families. What do you do? Do you share this awful truth, realizing it will mean prison for your progeny? Or do hide it away? Do you bury it so deep that no soul shall ever find it, even if that means their victim will never find justice?
That’s the meaty question at the center of The Dinner. Based on the Herman Koch novel, writer/director Oren Moverman’s follow-up to the Richard Gere drama Time Out of Mind centers on a pivotal night for one fractured family.
English comedian Steve Coogan sheds his natural accent and snarky silliness to play Paul, a history teacher whose mental illness prematurely ended his career, and pushed away his suave and admired congressman brother (Gere). But these estranged siblings are forced to reunite in a hellish yet elegant and very exclusive restaurant, where traumatic truths are served in between the presentation of “food art.” (Side note: I could have happily listened to Orange is the New Black’s Michael Chernus’s plucky host describe the cheese course for hours.) Along with their wives (Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall respectively), the seething brothers discuss the futures of their sons, who have committed a horrendous crime.
For those who prefer spoilers, highlight the following: The teen boys set a homeless woman on fire, burning her to death in an ATM vestibule. And they video recorded it, but swear it wasn’t them that uploaded it to YouTube.
With this premise, there is rich potential for drama, laced with rivalry, resentment, and conflicting parenting styles coming to an explosive head. Moverman could have dug in fully to the dinner commitment, trapping his characters at the table, and his audience in the claustrophobia of this impossible debate. But instead, the film hopscotches out of this tense meal, escaping to a series of fitful flashbacks that flesh out heavy-handed backstories, and tangle around Coogan and his achingly theatrical performance as a self-righteous, pompous, and unhinged prick. In an awkward American accent, Coogan is utterly exhausting as he grumbles one tirade after another about human nature, the value of history, and the importance of family loyalty. Regrettably, The Dinner is less an ensemble and more a character study of his obnoxious elitist. This is his movie to shoulder, and he falls hard while his co-stars spin art around him.
Confident and cool as ever, Gere easily establishes his charming congressman. But as the brothers get to the bloody business at hand, he rattles with rage, and winds with sorrow. Shaking his thick silver locks in frustration, Gere is riveting as he argues in favor of justice and redemption, pushing to turn in his son, because “What would he become if he gets away with this?”
In the opposing corner are Hall and Linney, taking the unnerving position to cover up their boys’ grisly crime. Turning her brilliant smile into a wound of a mouth, the lovely Hall is ferocious and fascinating. Her transformation from beatific trophy wife to finger pointing negotiator is carved with surgical precision. Then, Linney is a lion.
While Coogan flails and bellows as if he’s projecting for the folks in the cheap seats, Linney is a consummate film actor, subtly sculpting a performance that seems at first simple: supporting wife, that tedious underwritten role seeded throughout modern cinema. But while Coogan sputters and sneers, Linney slinks through this night with a captivating cunning, running circles around her co-stars and their ardent arguments with a terrifying determination. Her hair a halo of gold waves, her body swathed in soft red satin, one of the greatest actresses of our time narrows her steely blue eyes and makes herself as intimidating and terrifying as any movie Godfather. And her determined mom is just as fiercely protective of her family. Too bad the film undermines her arguments utterly, cutting a potentially enthralling theoretical discussion off at its knees by showing too much.
Linney’s pragmatic mom builds her position from an understandable place. She believes her son. He claims they were threatened. He says it was an accident. But in a confounding move, Moverman shows us the boys’ crime in full. As opposed to Asghar Farhadi, who purposefully obscured the action at the center of his acclaimed family drama A Separation to push his audience to play detective in an emotionally complex narrative, Moverman shows you the cold hard truth, and then frantically urges you to care about these people and their rotten children anyway. But there’s no way audience sympathy can be retrieved when the full gruesomeness of the boys’ crime is revealed. And so we are left to sit and watch this fighting that feels superfluous.
We are trapped with Coogan and his manic monologuing. We are forced to listen to exquisite sounding menu items that the camera all-too-often refuses to lovingly linger on! (My kingdom for a close-up of those desserts!) Then, we are abandoned in a moment of anxiety-ridden ambiguity that offers no climax, no closure, and no resolution. The Dinner is ultimately, a cruel tease of a drama, tempting our interest with curious details, a shocking crime, and a trip of stellar performers. But it pulls away before we reach catharsis, leaving us frustrated and confounded.