The Dinner (2017)
The Dinner (2017) sounds like an enticing promise of a civilised occasion with fine food and polite conversation. But only a small part of that promise is met. The rest turns into a fiercely fought morality battle laced with class and racial issues that puts the audience squarely in the frame by asking: if you were one of these parents, what would you do?
Ambitious politician Stan Lohman (Richard Gere) is a powerful figure accustomed to being fawned over and getting his own way. When he and his partner Kate (Rebecca Hall) arrange dinner at an obscenely expensive nouveau cuisine restaurant you know it’s not about food. He rarely sees his brother, ex- professor of history Paul (Steve Coogan), and his wife Claire (Laura Linney) because Paul loathes Stan for what he represents politically. The elegant meal is a ritual of florid gastronomy that provides the only stable point of reference throughout a fractious evening full of sibling rivalry. The brothers have complex emotional baggage that they throw at each other in between the constant interruptions for Stan’s election campaign calls and Paul’s neurotic meltdowns. The story’s multiple flashbacks are intended to provide the backstory to this human mess but they also add layers of fractured disconnection leaving the film vulnerable to collapsing under its own weight. It is not until late in the meal that we learn what this dinner is about: a family summit to discuss a heinous crime committed by their teenage sons.
Audience reactions to this film will be polarised. Its disjointed flashback structure is unsettling and emotional spikes every few minutes. It’s a chaotic scene: the four diners can barely exchange a few words before someone gets up and leaves. The non-stop vitriol can feel like being trapped inside an elevator with four people who never stop shouting at each other. And just when you start to wonder why you are still watching, the shocking reason for the dinner tumbles out with a crash. Once the moral drama is in focus, the wait suddenly becomes worthwhile. A senseless crime by juvenile offspring places the parents in the role of judge and jury, and whatever they decide, the effects will last a lifetime. The filming is sumptuous, the performances by the stellar ensemble are superb, and the pace of dialogue is delivered with forensic precision. The action does not stray far from that table so the strength of this film lies entirely in the script and the acting, and it delivers in spades.
At two hours running time, this film feels like it could have been tightened. The arguments can be repetitive, the big reveal comes late, moral issues are left underdeveloped, and the finale interruptus will leave many viewers feeling cheated. But it’s a gripping thriller that will generate discussion and challenge you to examine your own views about the moral boundaries of parental responsibility.
Director: Oren Moverman
Stars: Richard Gere, Rebecca Hall, Steve Coogan, Laura Linney