Director Oren Moverman takes the theme of family conflicts and serves it up on a grim platter. Food is how we experience and share our culture, however, in The Dinner, it’s not specifically what people eat that matters. That’s superfluous to the real stuff. Everything families seek, or want to avoid, or suppress, is laid out on the table here. And right from the beginning, when the main characters meet, it’s clear they have been putting off their difficult talk for far too long.
Just what is so terrible is not revealed immediately. But clues are given along the way. Before the two brothers, Paul and Stan, and their wives meet at a high-class restaurant to discuss an undisclosed family matter, the director begins to deliberately peel away layers of meaning and intrigue gradually. The film opens to a montage of pictures which play out against an ominous tune: we see military uniforms, a cemetery, and a shattered window covered in blood. The tension here effectively creates an edge that has us believe something terrible is going to happen at any moment. The sense of foreboding is real. You can see hear it, too, in the morose monologue delivered by Paul Lohman. What he says is central to his character and also serves as a hint at the greater underlying problems that create the conflicts between husband and wife, brother and brother, father and son. Paul speaks of his favourite parts of history. The Greeks. The gladiators. Then when he comes to the Middle Ages, he changes tune. “But then the Middle Ages? Fuck that. A blip of a disgusting mess,” he says, revealing more than he intended – that he has come to a time in his life where he is no longer the man he once was. He has long been at war with himself. With family.
Steve Coogan lends his talent to the picture, playing the embattled ex-history teacher dealing with his mental decline who constantly has us cringing with his incessant bleak rationalisations. While Richard Gere portrays the busy, idealistic congressman who wants to do right, but is torn between family and his sense of justice. Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall put everything into making their roles come alive, each adding their own emotional impact to this drama which revolves around protecting their children who have committed a horrific crime.
This film doesn’t quite pull off the kind of cathartic resonance or ending that the critically well received film, The Judge, has done, starring Robert Downy Jr and Robert Duvall. But perhaps what makes the film work is the growing exasperation experienced by the audience. Watching the characters’ who repeatedly are unable to come to a resolution mirrors our own lives where things are often left unsaid or not agreed upon. Stan, Kate, and Claire fight on moral grounds, make their justifications, and inherently disagree at every turn. Paul floats on the periphery and injects his anger that stems from his own disillusionments. Tension and suspense is used really well here. One conflict is built upon another, ushering the families closer and closer to that brink which families fear: disconnection, abandonment, the grief of loss.
Towards the end, Congressman Stan Lohman’s aide reminds him that family is not politics. To this, Stan replies: “It’s all strategic. There’s never been right or wrong. Just a lot of shitty choices. Someone always gets hurt. Like in politics.”
Touché. Jesse Short