In The Dinner, Oren Moverman wastes no time in establishing a tone of grandiose scabrousness. Right in the opening scene, history professor Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan, sporting a rather jarring American accent) articulates his profoundly anti-American view of American history; and to his wife, Claire (Laura Linney), he calls his politician brother, Stan (Richard Gere), an “ape” as they both prepare to meet Stan and his new wife, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall), for a fancy dinner. Paul, at least at the start of the film, seems positioned to be the grim—and grimly funny—truth-teller among a group of people who prefer to hide their true natures behind a veneer of high-class civility.
One of the pleasures, though, of watching The Dinner unfold is the way that Moverman frequently reveals new sides of these characters, constantly challenging the audience’s preconceived notions about them. Paul, for one, turns out to be actually crazy—as in, afflicted with a mental illness that’s run throughout his family’s bloodline. That illness may be fuzzily defined, but Moverman sharply dramatizes the man’s deeper emotional underpinnings: his long-simmering resentment toward his overachieving brother, and the possibility that he’s so obsessively absorbed American history for so long that he’s intellectualized himself out of touch with the modern world.
Claire initially seems like the picture-perfect image of the patient, long-suffering wife, selflessly looking after her husband and son, Michael (Charlie Plummer). But by the film’s third act, she’s bearing the same sort of protecting-family-at-all-costs fangs that Linney’s character in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River displayed in her 11th-hour, Lady Macbeth-like monologue. Katelyn eventually shows a similarly heartless and manipulative side, though her pitilessness is, in brief flashes, leavened by what appears to be genuine love for Stan’s son, Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick). As for Stan, well, let’s just say that Moverman deliberately preys on our knee-jerk distrust of politicians before springing perhaps the biggest surprise of all: that this particular politician turns out to be the most comparatively honorable in the bunch.
Through a twisty flashback structure that frequently interrupts the central dinner, we soon learn the real reason for Stan gathering these people together: a video that’s recently gone viral showing Michael and Rick doing something horrible to a black homeless woman at an ATM. It’s an incident that puts Stan’s political candidacy at risk if his son is found out. The flashbacks to Michael and Rick committing the act reveal their lack of a moral compass, but it’s a measure of how thoroughly Moverman has imagined these people and this social milieu that the teenagers’ immorality is all-too-fitting. Their parents have so cloistered them from the social realities outside their privileged bubble that they’re unable to see the homeless woman as a human being. Instead, as Michael at one point says, she was merely “in the way” of their withdrawing money in order to get home from a party.
Moverman is purposely evoking current racial tensions in the U.S. in adapting Dutch novelist Herman Koch’s The Dinner in this manner, but it’s as topical commentary that the film is perhaps least successful. For a drama that is, in part, a critical take on the way privileged whites view lower-class minorities with indifference bordering on contempt, the fact that the handful of minority characters in this tale are given little to do—thus putting them basically at the service of the white characters—may strike some as hypocritical. But then, it could be said that Moverman is merely reflecting the cloistered social reality that these one-percenters have inhabited all their lives.
When it comes to seeing the four main characters verbally dueling with each other, pleading and rationalizing to themselves, though, The Dinner is an electrifying experience—and possibly an illuminating one. Paul may be an unreliable narrator whose cynical view of humanity should be taken with a huge grain of salt, but by the end, there’s no escaping the possibility that, at least in the particular world he inhabits, he may be onto something after all in seeing his brethren as merely animals with smartphones.
Berlinale runs from February 9—17.