Film Review: Beatriz At Dinner
BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017) DIR. MIGUEL ARTETA
By Belle McIntyre
Any film with “dinner” in the title will inevitably be referring to a meal with an outsider of some sort which will provide the raison d’être for the film. This film is no exception and the disruptor of the title, Beatriz, played to perfection by Salma Hayek is a Mexican massage therapist and holistic healer in Los Angeles who finds herself at a dinner with a small group of captains of industry who are celebrating a deal they have just successfully concluded which will make them all even richer than they already are.
The set up is carefully crafted as we spend time with Beatriz in her modest home in Altadena caring for her small menagerie which includes dogs, a bird and a goat, which she must bring inside so that his bleating does not bother her cranky neighbor who has expressed serious hostility toward the animal. She goes about her morning routine with the mindfulness which is the hallmark of the “evolved” in the alternative healing profession. Looking uncharacteristically plain and unglamorous, wearing no makeup, an unflattering hair style, chinos, a work shirt and sneakers, she sets out for work with her massage table to the cancer center where she dispenses spiritual and physical comfort to her grateful patients.
Her last visit of the day is the one which starts the narrative moving forward. She has agreed to to drive out to Newport Beach to give a massage to Connie, a hugely wealthy woman, with whom she has developed close ties on account of the fact that her daughter had a terrible cancer bout and Beatriz was instrumental in her healing process. The only stress on Connie at this moment is the small dinner party she is hosting that night. So when Beatriz’s car won't start and her friend cannot come to help her, rather than just call for a tow truck to take her home, Connie, inexplicably, insists that she stay and join them for dinner over the objections of her husband Graham (David Warshawsky).
This all feels like a slightly awkward plotting device at first glance. But maybe it is a way to signal Connie’s cluelessness regarding the sensitivities of those unlike herself. That she then leaves Beatriz alone and carries on with her own preparations and does nothing about the fact that Beatriz is totally inappropriately dressed. When the guests arrive she appears to not even notice that Beatriz is in the room until the waiter offers her a glass of wine. It is only then that she introduces Beatriz with effusive descriptions about her healing abilities.
The guests are a youngish pair of up and comers. Alex (Jay Duplass) is a young Turk corporate lawyer who specializes in real estate and his wife, Shannon (Chloe Sevigny), a dedicated social climber. The special guest is Doug Strutt played by the imposing John Lithgow, a hugely powerful real estate mogul of questionable ethics and unabashedly resembling Donald Trump in personality and attitude. He is the lynchpin to the other’s ticket to megabucks. Their conversation is appalling as they congratulate themselves while basking in their own reflected glory and toast the brilliance of their nakedly avaricious ambitions. They are the poster crowd for the evils of capitalism.
Initially Beatriz is treated with polite condescension by the guests to whom she replies with genuine thoughts and opinions. However, as her glass keeps being refilled she loosens up and becomes more insistent in stating her points of view much to the consternation of Connie and particularly to Graham, who try to subtly reign her in. She leaves the table to chill out. During her time out she googles Doug Strutt and discovers some of the damaging projects he has been involved in. One in particular, which directly devastated her family and their land and has resulted in her impoverishment and that of many others. Something dark and ominous forms inside her igniting a simmering rage and righteous indignation. When she returns to the table, her inner peace has been decimated, her outer calm is shattered. Her control mechanism has been compromised by what she has discovered and the proximity of the entity who has perpetrated so much misfortune on so many.
I will not reveal what follows except to say that things reach a boiling point for Beatriz and things escalate rapidly. We go from the literal to the metaphorical, with the introduction of flashbacks to another time and place, and words spoken to an unknown presence. A shocking act of extreme violence is completely unexpected followed by a fatal action. And then, without explanation, it is suddenly over. The ending seems abrupt and unresolved. What is the message? Is Beatriz too good for this world or too unrealistic to find a way to cope? Can she affect change? Maybe not. Sad.
One thing which is abundantly clear is Mike White’s point of view. Without unduly showy dialog and a naturalistic acting style, the “one percenters” are mercilessly skewered as shallow, self-involved, venal and ruthlessly ambitious, devoid of human kindness or an ounce of empathy or gratitude. They are all very convincingly portrayed with nuanced performances and subtle gestures which reveal their character rather than explaining it. No one seems to have a moral compass, especially Doug who brags about the joys of stalking and killing big game as if it were a religious experience. He is a truly repellant character and, regrettably, one that we recognize all too well. This is a film for our time with sterling performances by the two leads. It would be more entertaining if it weren’t so depressingly true. But it is surely well worth seeing for some top-notch performances and spot-on directing.
Watch the trailer here.