“The Dinner” has a catchy atmosphere of disturbance. Written and directed by Oren Moverman, and adapted from the best-selling novel by Herman Koch (first published in the Netherlands in 2009), the film ultimately descends from the genre invented by “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Two couples assemble for a “civilized” get-together — dinner and drinks, conversation that starts off as relatively polite. But as the evening wears on, they reveal themselves (or maybe peel themselves, layer by layer) until the hidden violence at the core of their civility stands naked.
The last time this was tried in a movie, in Roman Polanski’s “God of Carnage” (2011), the staging was OK, but the play itself was awful — a chain of contrivances that just got loopier. Koch’s novel is a far more captivating work, and Moverman, the gifted director of “Rampart” and “The Messenger,” is a shrewd naturalistic showman who knows how to portray the intensity of psychological damage without overhyping it. “The Dinner” has the ominous verve of a thriller: It starts off as a movie about four people having dinner at an absurdly fancy restaurant, but it leaps into flashbacks, digressions, emotional byways. It’s still, at heart, a concoction, but a tricky and riveting one, and it’s got a handful of highly resonant things to say about privilege, family, mental illness, and a society in which not giving a damn — about anyone — has begun to evolve into a respectable point of view. Driven by a quartet of powerhouse performances, “The Dinner,” if given the right handling, could find a niche among specialty-market moviegoers who like their carnage served with a sophisticated sting.
The movie shifts the action from the book’s Amsterdam setting to an unnamed American city, but it retains the design of a novel that has hypnotized readers around the world. Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan), the central figure, and also the most troubled and high-strung, is a caustic misanthrope, a former high-school history teacher who thinks he’s a loser (in this case, a self-fulfilling prophecy). To him, the Battle of Gettysburg isn’t just a chapter of war — it’s a metaphor for life. Paul grew up in the shadow of his older brother, the handsome glad-hander Stan (Richard Gere), a U.S. congressman who’s in the middle of what looks like a successful run for governor. The two men are meeting, along with their wives, at one of those insanely posh destination restaurants in which food is treated as a postmodern art form. This particular establishment is housed in a mansion — inside, it’s all burnished wood and plush couches, shot with a honeyed candlelit romantic glow by the great cinematographer Bobby Bukowski.
Before the meet-up, we peek in on Paul and his wife, Claire (Laura Linney), so that we can adjust to the toxic wit of his scalding masochistic cynicism. Coogan has always played characters with a comic edge, but here it isn’t just his English accent that’s gone, replaced by a kind of stunted American bluntness; the wisps of humor have been melted down as well, into something too dark to be laughed at. Paul is the kind of pill who stakes everything on his “integrity,” which means that he’s constantly saying what he believes, even if that means putting down everyone around him. He thinks he’s speaking bitter truths, but really he’s just dragging everyone into his cave of miserablism. His 16-year-old son, Michael (Charlie Plummer), has nothing but contempt for him, and his wife treats him like a wounded bird who needs constant tending. One’s response to “The Dinner” will hinge on whether you go for Coogan’s clipped, hostile performance, which some may find mannered. I thought it was magnetic: an honest portrait of a wrecked soul — and one who, as we learn, has crossed the line (and quite believably) into mental illness.
In the restaurant, Paul can’t stop making cracks about the obsequious waiters, the foo-foo absurdity of the dishes (a live garden served with rosemary from Oregon, sauce poured out of gourds). He’s right, in a sense, to skewer this playpen of the one percent, but he’s also a borderline head case who uses his social critique defensively, to stop himself from existing in the moment. Besides, the real tension derives from the situation they’ve all come together to talk about. It has to do with their sons, who on a recent drunken evening approached an ATM booth with a decrepit homeless woman sleeping inside and did something very, very bad. The way the film creeps up to this event might seem hokey, except that the incident, in its casual terror, is all too authentic. Moverman leaves it to the audience to piece together that Michael is really acting out his father’s rage.
So what, exactly, is to be done? Michael, along with his cousin, committed a crime, but should they be revealed and punished, or should the crime be covered up, even as an anonymous video clip of it (with their identities shrouded) goes up on YouTube? The dramatic power of “The Dinner” is that the movie refuses to come down on either side, and that makes the debate an arresting one. It’s Stan, the politician devoted to public image, who thinks that all must be revealed; he’s out to purge, in one fell swoop, the illness of his family. But the women think differently: his wife, Katelyn, played by Rebecca Hall as a trophy wife who knows she’s a trophy wife (and seems all the more sympathetic because of it), and is not about to give up everything she married this man of power for; and Claire, played by Linney in a stupendous performance, as a loving woman of primal maternal instinct who is also shocking in her self-delusion.
“The Dinner” is a portrait of the hidden muck, and even the quivers of insanity, that can run through the most “normal” of families. There’s certainly a touch of gimmickry in the film’s design — the fact that it’s a glorified four-hander, in which these embattled adults play the truth game with their own souls. Yet Moverman balances the potential for staginess with his flowing cinematic bravura; he keeps surprising you, and he gives the drama a dash of poison elegance. His last film, “Time Out of Mind” (starring Gere as a homeless man), had more humanity that storytelling energy, but “The Dinner” marks a return to form for a filmmaker who’s an underhanded expert at exposing the darkness in his characters’ hearts and getting the audience to feel that, yes, it’s their darkness too.