Movie review: Dark drama reaches the boiling point in ‘The Dinner’

Ed Symkus More Content Now
Steve Coogan, Laura Linney, Richard Gere, and Rebecca Hall enjoy one of the very few light moments in Oren Moverman’s tale of madness. (Photo courtesy of The Orchard)

What an unexpected surprise to see a film so engrossing, so well acted-written-directed … so early in the year, so far in advance of any Oscar thoughts.

Provocative filmmaker Oren Moverman (“The Messenger,” “Rampart”) directed and adapted Dutch novelist Herman Koch’s bestselling 2009 cautionary tale “The Dinner.” Moverman has developed a reputation for getting spontaneous and kind of raw performances out of his actors by turning the cameras on them before any rehearsals. That approach works so well here because it makes tense situations and themes even edgier.

The film opens with an assault of hip-hop and a scene of excess drinking at a high school party, but be assured that this is adult material, a serious and searing movie that addresses issues including mental illness, homelessness, and family dynamics. But don’t think for a second that it’s off-putting. The quartet of terrific actors at its center -- Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, and Rebecca Hall -- make it fascinating to watch, especially if you’re a fan of performers who aren’t afraid to pour everything they’ve got into it, even if it means risking going over the top (no one does here, but there are moments that come thrillingly close).

One of the film’s strongest components is its ambiguousness about what’s actually going on. The opening teen scene makes no sense on its own, but later becomes a compelling part of the story. The reason that the couples of Paul and Claire (Coogan and Linney) and Stan and Katelyn (Gere and Hall) get together, under duress, for an absurdly fancy meal at an exorbitantly expensive restaurant isn’t fully explained until the swirling, flashback-filled plot is well under way.

Moverman would probably like the idea of keeping things vague to anyone who hasn’t read the book, so very few specifics will be revealed here. It’s OK to know that Stan and Paul are brothers who, for various reasons, have difficulty communicating with each other. It’s also safe to say that Stan is a successful politician and Paul is a failed high school teacher, and that their wives have been going through a lot of emotional turmoil in trying to, in many different ways, support their husbands’ endeavors.

The dinner, which is presented in satirical manner, by the course, with a proud maitre d’ announcing each component of it while a battery of efficient, silent servers place plates and glasses in front of the diners, has been initiated by Stan. He knows there’s a problem within the family. It involves each couple’s 16-year-old son, who are friends, and some deep trouble they’ve carelessly gotten themselves into. The script revolves around the fact that Stan realizes the problem must be dealt with, for the good of everyone (let’s not forget he’s in the political spotlight), although the other three adults in the room really don’t want to talk about it.

But talk they do, sometimes so quietly it’s hard to hear what they say (this isn’t anything to worry about; everything that happens is readily understood), sometimes so loudly, it comes across as rude to the audience as it is to others in the restaurant. The wordy script features plenty of seemingly addled narration by British actor Coogan, in a flawless American accent, that provides insight about his dining companions. But it’s up to other characters to explain what’s going on in his head. Gere’s Stan blurts out a passing mention of a history of mental illness in the family. That line acts as a sort of a trigger for what’s to come but is also useful in figuring out what’s happened in the past, most notably the initially innocuous, later troubling, and finally horrific event with the teens that has led to the need for this dinner.

Among all of these great performances, Coogan, best known for comic roles, turns in a tour de force, presenting a very complicated character who manages to maintain a sardonic sense of humor while fighting against emotional instability. Put all of these ingredients together and you’ve got a riveting, devastating movie.

-- Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now.

“The Dinner”

Written and directed by Oren Moverman

With Richard Gere, Steve Coogan, Laura Linney, Rebecca Hall

Rated R