The Dinner: A Spotlight on Unreliable Narrators

Oren Moverman on serving more than just a meal in the unpredictable drama The Dinner.

Four people sit down to a meal in an almost inordinately elegant restaurant: Congressman Stan Lohman (Richard Gere), his brother Paul (Steve Coogan), Stan’s wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall), and Paul’s spouse Claire (Laura Linney). But this is anything but a normal night out involving two adult siblings and their wives. In The Dinner, the new film written and directed by Oren Moverman (The Messenger) from a best-selling novel by Dutch author Herman Koch, this repast is anything but routine. Not only are personal difficulties, relationship issues, and secret agendas revealed, but the four have met because their sons are involved in something horrible that only the parents and children know about… for now. The question is, what do they do about it?

This is the moral quandary that caught the imagination of Moverman, as he explained when I spoke with him via phone recently. Surprisingly, he was first tapped to write the film but not direct it; it was initially meant to be the directorial debut of actress Cate Blanchett. “I was very curious because I knew that this was going to be her first film as a director and I wanted to be part of that ride and see what happened,” said Moverman. “I wrote a draft for her and then she became very busy with this other little career that she has — amazing actress and mother of four and theater director — so I think she has a very busy life and I was asked to take over. By then I was very intimate with the story and I really felt it’d be interesting to dive in and kind of find my way through it.”

Although the bulk of the movie takes place during the dinner — with the film broken up into several chapters marked as various courses — Moverman keeps it from getting static by moving backward and forward in time, staging scenes in different parts of the restaurant or flashing back to some of the characters’ back histories, which are troubled long before the incident involving their sons. In the book, Paul is an unreliable narrator whose observations of what happens and even mental state is called into question; Moverman uses the character in the same way in the movie, only in a more cinematic sense.

“Part of the fun of translating a book to a movie is really taking your cues from the book but finding new things about it,” said the director. “Paul in the book is the narrator who you sort of trust in the beginning and you feel like, ‘This is a guy I can have a beer with.’ And then you go along with him and realize you’ve been kind of bamboozled and this guy’s really not well. But what happens is you realize everybody’s an unreliable narrator. Everyone has their agenda. Everyone has their point of view. They have their place in the politics of the family and what you’re getting is everyone’s vision and perspective towards the night of the incident with the teenagers but also toward what this family is about.”

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Moverman added that one thing he liked about the book and wanted to retain for the movie was the constantly shifting perspective on the characters. “You think they’re one thing and then they turn into another and that’s very cinematic in itself,” he explained. “That ultimately raises a lot of doubts in you. What you have to do, as an active participant in the movie, is really decide who you’re going to be with. Who’s your guy representing you in this argument? And what I like about it is that no one is perfect enough and no one is reliable enough for you to kind of latch onto and say, ‘That’s my point of view. I agree with them 100%.’”

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Steve Coogan’s performance in the film is nothing short of astonishing; viewers used to seeing a more comedic side of the actor in films like The Trip, or even more dramatic roles like his work in Philomena, will be floored by the dark, complex, deeply troubled Paul. “Steve was a gift,” said Moverman. “He called me up, even before I approached him,  and said ‘Steve’s read the script, he likes it and he wants to do it.’ So I got on the phone with him, and we started chatting, and it was absolutely wonderful. I knew he understood this character, he understood his anger, he understood where he was coming from. It wasn’t a stretch for him to understand what to do with this guy so he jumped in and the work was pretty fluid. I knew he could pull it off and he was very serious about doing it well.”

All four leads turn in fantastic performances, and this marks the third time that Moverman has worked with Richard Gere, directing him in 2014’s Time Out of Mind and producing the recently released Norman, in which Gere also starred. The actor has begun a new phase of his career in the independent world, with roles as both a leading man and a character actor, and Moverman has been glad to be in the front row for that transition.

“We’re at a place where serious movies are not really made by the studio system, for the most part, and so I think he quite logically and quite perceptively looked at the independent world and said, ‘Well, that’s where the movies I’m interested in are happening,’ mused the director. “And he decided to just take that route. I’ve been very lucky to be involved in that, as part of his process, but to me he’s first and foremost an incredibly gifted actor who can do many, many things and beyond that, to me he’s a friend and a teacher and a humanist I really admire and someone who is very thoughtful, very intelligent, very warm. I can’t say enough good things about him.”

There is something surprising about Gere’s performance and that of all his fellow actors in The Dinner, but what may be most unexpected about the film is its relevance to real life and the current political climate. One of the themes of the movie is whether a circle-the-wagons mentality, or saying, “Screw everyone else, screw what’s right, we have to protect our own” is a necessary, moral or even viable option when it comes to actions that border on unspeakable. For Moverman, his little four-person allegory focuses precisely on that troubling aspect of our society today.

“I think that’s exactly where we are and I think that’s exactly what’s so perverted about the state of things right now,” agreed Moverman. “Everyone is just really, in the political world especially, but socially as well, everyone’s just trying to protect their turf and trying to protect their ideology and their way of seeing things. Everyone else is wrong, and if they’re wrong, they’re ‘the other’ and if they’re ‘the other’ they are less human and if they’re less human I don’t have to treat them in a way I treat human beings and I don’t have to have compassion for them and before you know it society is starting to break down. The sense of community is gone and everyone’s just in it for their own gain, and I think that’s one of the things that’s so pronounced in this movie.”

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The Dinner is out in limited release now.