Oren Moverman is a challenging filmmaker, one who doesn’t want to make things easy and palatable for audiences, but complicated, nuanced, sensorially heightened. That means sometimes his films are uncomfortable to watch, and in the case of “The Dinner,” that discomfort fits perfectly with the subject matter. Based on the bestselling book by Dutch author Herman Koch, “The Dinner” is a gripping family drama grappling with mental illness, past traumas and conflicting moralities against the backdrop of a lavish and extravagant dinner. There are no easy answers to be found in this tale, and Moverman’s formal experimentation makes that experience manifest for the audience.
While the plot takes place over several hours during a prolonged dinner, the story 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 an urgent family dilemma — a heinous crime in which their children are involved. They converge upon an exquisitely appointed establishment, replete with every fussy, fancy, foodie trend, and proceed to wreak emotional havoc on each other, the host, the sommelier and the waitstaff — anyone who gets close enough to the blast range.
Paul, a writer and former high school teacher, brings to the table decades of resentment for his suave politician brother, repressed trauma over his wife’s past illnesses and an unmedicated mood disorder. His erratic, unfiltered patter is at first endearing — his horror at the fastidious food rituals is a necessary tonic for the stuffy, pretentious preening of the restaurant. But he goes increasingly left as the night progresses, escalating from provocative to downright rude and confrontational. What’s initially funny becomes aggressive, and Coogan masterfully balances Paul’s evolution, over the course of the evening and in flashbacks, in a virtuosic and riveting dramatic performance.
Through the script, which he adapted, Moverman carefully shifts our allegiances to the characters. While we’re initially aligned with Paul and Claire, slowly we come around to Stan, who represents the moral compass within this hurricane of emotion and manipulation. The flashbacks offer the 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” and his last directorial effort, “Time Out of Mind,” Moverman seems enamored to experiment with sound design as a way to bring the audience into a sensory cinematic world. In “The Dinner,” multiple layers of sound create the atmosphere of the restaurant, as well as mimic the aural overload of this experience for someone in the room. Background conversation is turned up, interfering with the main conversation, and characters talk over each other, rendering their statements illegible. During a particularly tense climatic scene, the ding of emails piling into the inbox of an open laptop serves as a distracting, near infuriating metronome.
“The Dinner” is at its most compelling when wrestling with the central conflict concerning the children — it’s horrifying but fascinating. While Moverman’s cinematic style can be physically 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 like everyone has shared a cathartic transformative experience.
☆☆ 1/2 out of 5
Cast: Steve Coogan, Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Rebecca Hall, Chloe Sevigny.
Director: Oren Moverman.
Running time: 2:00.
Rated: R, for disturbing violent content, and language throughout.