This American drama is based loosely on a Dutch novel of the same name by Herman Koch, first published in 2009. It deals in thriller format with family conflict, and focuses on the nature of secrets not yet fully revealed, The movie specifically tackles the issue of how far parents are willing to go to protect their children.
Paul (Steve Coogan), a former history teacher, and his wife, Claire Lohman (Laura Linney) sit down a little reluctantly at an expensive, fashionable restaurant to have dinner with Paul’s politician brother, Stan (Richard Gere), and his wife, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall).
Stan is a celebrity politician, who is popularly on target to be the next Governor. Envy exists between the two brothers. Paul is not as successful, or famous as Stan, and has no job, and Stan and Paul have been estranged since childhood. Paul is mentally ill, and feels deeply inadequate.
As the evening progresses, unsettling details about a serious incident emerge. A crime has been committed by their two teenage boys, and the parents are gathered to discuss how the crime affects them and their children. The children set fire to a homeless black woman sheltering in an ATM booth and what they did was caught on a security tape. The woman was burned to death; the incident, as it unfolded, was recorded by the boys themselves as they stood by watching; and the boys involved have not yet been identified.
The two families differ on what they think should be done. Fear, passion, guilt, remorse and responsibility surface, and the issues facing the group are morally complex: What needs to be done now? Who takes responsibility for what has happened? Should the responsibility be shared? And who bears the guilt of what has occurred? Both couples are forced to make life-changing decisions, after ostensibly enjoying fine dining, and everyone knows that future lives are going to be affected in serious ways.
The film has some similarity to “Perfect Strangers” (2016) where secrets are revealed over a meal that dramatically alter the lives of those present. The acting talent around this table is formidable, but the tension of the drama is affected negatively by the disjointed flashbacks introduced to tell the story, and tension is affected by the waiter’s dissertations about the food that is being served.
At the film’s core is the personal struggle of two sets of parents on how to deal with the situation, and one particular issue emerges as a focal point in discussion: both families are forced to come to grips with the issue of whether there are limits on how far they are willing to shield their children. Do parents need to “hold back” in any way to protect their children? Whereas ‘”Perfect Strangers”‘ revealed a range of secrets not known before, and used razor sharp scripting, this film focuses on a single dark, unshared secret, and the scripting is looser in its exploration of the complex dynamics. As truth surfaces, interactions and conversations maintain viewer-interest, but the psychological tautness of the film‘s thriller components are tied to events kept in the background.
At a social level, the film comments on apparent civility, and demonstrates that there is a dark side to so-called polite society, and political appropriateness. Moral ineptitude exists around the table. All the characters are deeply morally flawed and one is severely disturbed. And one of them delivers a sting in the tail to conclude the movie. But too much has gone on, and too many issues have been raised, to leave the viewer deeply satisfied.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting