Oren Moverman is a challenging filmmaker who doesn’t want to make things easy and palatable for audiences. Sometimes his films are uncomfortable to watch, and in “The Dinner,” that discomfort fits perfectly with the subject matter.
This gripping family drama grapples with mental illness, past traumas and conflicting moralities against the backdrop of a lavish dinner. There are no easy answers to be found in this tale.
The plot takes place during a prolonged dinner, but the story itself contains years of history. Congressman Stan Lohman (Richard Gere) invites his brother, Paul (Steve Coogan), and sister-in-law, Claire (Laura Linney), to dinner with his wife, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall), to discuss a family dilemma — a heinous crime in which their children are involved. They proceed to wreak emotional havoc on each other.
Paul, a writer and former high school teacher, brings to the table decades of resentment toward his suave politician brother, repressed trauma over his wife’s past illnesses and an unmedicated mood disorder. His erratic patter is at first endearing. But as the night progresses, he escalates from provocative to rude to confrontational. What’s initially funny becomes aggressive, and Coogan masterfully balances Paul’s evolution in a riveting performance.
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Through the script, Moverman carefully shifts our allegiances with the characters. While we’re initially aligned with Paul and Claire, we eventually come around to Stan, who represents the moral compass within this hurricane of emotion and manipulation. The flashbacks offer context for Stan’s mistrust of Paul’s judgment, their past conflicts and grievances with each other. Despite the outbursts, the cajoling and wheedling, Stan somehow remains steadfast in his convictions, offering a North Star of righteousness for the audience.
In “The Dinner,” Moverman experiments with sound design as a way to bring the audience into the world. Background conversation is turned up, interfering with the main conversation; characters talk over each other, rendering their statements illegible. During a tense climactic scene, the ding of emails piling into an open laptop serves as an infuriating metronome.
“The Dinner” is at its most compelling when wrestling with the central conflict concerning the children. While Moverman’s cinematic style can be uncomfortable to experience, it’s impossible to turn away from the quartet of incredible performances. The story is wrapped up messily but beautifully, and by the end it feels as if everyone has shared a cathartic experience.
Rated R for disturbing violent content, and language throughout. 2:00. Kentucky.