Anyone who keeps up with modern literature is familiar with the concept of the unreliable narrator, the subjective storyteller who is gradually revealed to be manipulating the narrative by means of deception or delusion. In Oren Moverman's The Dinner, it's not just the characters who can't be trusted; it's the story itself, a fragmented, scrambled narrative that refuses to settle down for a minute. Is it a psychological drama, a horror film, a dark (very dark) comedy? The answer is yes, probably.
Adapted from Herman Koch's 2009 novel, an international bestseller that has already been filmed twice (in the Netherlands and Italy), the film takes place mostly over a single evening with two couples at an outrageously trendy restaurant. Stan Lohman (Richard Gere) is a successful congressman, pulling strings to pass a new mental health act while on the verge of winning his state's governorship. His brother Paul (Steve Coogan) is a high school history teacher nursing a lifetime of sibling rivalry. Their wives (Rebecca Hall and Laura Linney) struggle to maintain their own authority against Stan's continual politicking and Paul's well-maintained wall of bitterness. With new battle lines being drawn every few minutes, they pretend to share a friendly dinner while struggling to avoid the subject on everyone's minds, a horrific violent crime involving their families.
Though all four performers are excellent, it's Coogan who carries the weight of the film, and once you get used to his curiously hard-to-place American accent, he's extraordinary, with a thick skin of neuroses that is almost painful to watch. Paul is recovering from a recent breakdown, the symptoms of which are an obsession with the Battle of Gettysburg and a disdain for the entire world. (He loudly dismisses his students as "sad, pathetic, doomed shitheads"; the rest of the world are mere "hominids.") Coogan starts the film as a Woody Allen character played straight, his grouchy dial cranked up to eleven, but as the film progresses, he transforms into a man who is both sympathetic and extremely irritating, broken yet monstrous.
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- Steve Coogan is extraordinary, with a thick skin of neuroses that is almost painful to watch.
The film is structured around the various courses of a dinner, with sequences announced via titles as "aperitif," "main course," and so on, each one introduced by a parade of restaurant staff who very briefly give the film the ambiance of a 1930s musical. Moverman plays on the irony of the setting, with the bickering characters regularly interrupted by the fawning restaurateur (Michael Chernus) who gushes over each course, from an appetizer of "young winter roots sprinkled with a burnt pumpernickel soil" to the dessert, "a melting chocolate egg with parsnip cake and grapefruit on Brazil nuts, edible flowers and mint, topped with a salted whiskey caramel."
The sense of extravagance is matched by an equally subtle overload of music, a rich texture of sounds created by music supervisor Hal Willner that shifts seamlessly from Bob Dylan to Nico, from Serge Gainsbourg to Philip Glass or from Satie to Olivier Messiaen, serving as both ambient background in the restaurant and the eclectic soundtrack to the minds of its patrons. It starts as a mild audio-visual joke but soon the contrast between the excess of the meal and the suppressed emotional turmoil of the diners — and between the ritual of the menu and the scattered, oblique narrative — becomes dizzying.
If I've said very little about the film's plot, that unreliable narrative, it's not because the details — the trauma of the past, the violence no one wants to discuss, the shared history — aren't important, but because they're inseparable from the method in which they're revealed.
The film's comical sense of ritual and artifice, the loose ends of its unresolved dramatic lines, its elaborately staged set-pieces (including a hallucinatory trip to Gettysburg), the raw emotions of its four broken characters: Moverman treats the elements of The Dinner not as fragments of a puzzle but as the contents of a kaleidoscope, small shards of story and character constantly interacting and moving, always visible but never stable. It's a powerful and disturbing film, an unsettling experience that lingers long after the final course has been served.