Oren Moverman doesn’t make movies so much as set traps. His films as writer and director – the military-vet drama The Messenger, the bad-cop character study Rampart, the incredible portrait-of-a-homeless-man Time Out of Mind – are built to detonate. And when the explosion comes, the dust never really clears; you’re left with shards that keep digging in, provocations you can’t get out of your head. The Dinner, the latest missile from this brilliant Israeli-American filmmaker, is no exception. Based on the 2009 global bestseller by Dutch author Herman Koch, the movie follows the trajectory of the satiric darts Koch threw at the privileged, but adds its own deeper, savagely comic take on the violence that simmers under the façade of polite society.
Like the book, the film has an unreliable narrator. He’s Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan), a history professor whose view of America is laced with contempt. In Paul’s eye’s, his older brother Stan (Richard Gere), a slick, silver-haired congressman running for governor, is an “ape.” So when Stan and his trophy wife, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall), invite the academic and his spouse, Claire (Laura Linney), to dinner at a restaurant that’s a monument to chic pomposity, it’s hard not to share Paul’s disgust. As the foursome sits down for a long night’s journey of consuming resentment, shot with a sharp eye for rotting luxury by the gifted cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, the stage is set for verbal fireworks.
Of course, nothing is what it seems, which is exactly how Moverman likes it. He uses flashbacks and tonal changes to make the book speak his language. Without giving too much away, we can say that Stan has asked his family to dinner for a reason: A video has just gone viral showing a homeless black woman burning to death in an ATM booth. Stan’s son, Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), and Paul and Claire’s 16-year-old boy, Michael (Charlie Plummer), may be involved. Should these parents own up or cover up?
One character will descend into madness while the others grapple with compromise – but even though they’re a nest of vipers, neither Moverman nor his cast (Gere, Coogan, Hall and Linney are all at the top of their game here) see these flawed people as less than human. There are bumps along the way, transitions from one medium to another will do that, but this filmmaker and his fierce foursome won’t be done till they take a piece out of you. It’s a gripping psychological thriller with a sting in its tail.