TOPICAL TABLE TALK
Beatriz at Dinner is a very up-to-theminute reflection on American society and, like Oren Moverman’s recent The Dinner, frames its political commentary within the confines of a meal during which personalities bitterly clash. Puerto Rican-born director Miguel Arteta sets his film not in a restaurant but in the lavish home of extremely prosperous Americans located within a gated community.
The hosts, Kathy (Connie Britton) and Grant (David Warshofsky), are entertaining business friends with powerful connections. Their guests are Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) and his wife, Jeana (Amy Landecker), and Alex (Jay Duplass) and his wife, Shannon (Chloe Sevigny).
Strutt is the personification of success; his firm owns shopping malls and luxury hotels in the US and abroad. He’s a self-satisfied, selfmade man whose ruthless methods have evidently not always been entirely lawful; he boasts he’s writing his autobiography and that two of the possible titles are You’re in My Way, Asshole and This Can’t Possibly End Well.
There’s an unlikely additional guest at dinner. Beatriz (Mexican superstar Salma Hayek, severely deglamorised) works as a therapist at a cancer centre and lives alone in a small apartment with her dogs and goats. Neighbours have, quite understandably, been complaining about the noise the goats make, and one of the animals has been killed on her doorstep.
Beatriz is a good woman who cares for her fellow human beings. Kathy is grateful to her because when her daughter was sick with cancer, Beatriz treated her and there was a successful outcome. Kathy occasionally invites Beatriz to her home for massages. She’s done so on the afternoon of the dinner party, but Beatriz’s car has broken down and she lives on the opposite side of Los Angeles. So, despite Grant’s misgivings, Beatriz is invited to stay the night and to attend the dinner.
Given all that has been said by US President Donald Trump about Mexicans and the need for a wall and a crackdown on illegal immigration, this is clearly a fairly incendiary subject.
Though Trump’s name is never mentioned, it’s more than probable that the hosts and the four “official” guests are all Trump supporters. They are all clearly discomfited by the presence of a Mexican woman who is so obviously not “one of them”.
They’re slightly shocked when, on being introduced, she hugs each of them. They quiz her, none too tactfully, about how and when she came to America, and then they pretty much ignore her. The men talk business, the women chat about homes and gardens and gossip about the intimate sexual problems of a female friend.
After a few glasses of wine, it gradually dawns on Beatriz, who has been pretty much shut out of the conversation, that Strutt is the man who despoiled an area of the Mexican coastline near her home, displacing the population, razing the natural habitat of rare birds, Australia Day; Mountain, and offering in return jobs that never actually materialised. More than that, Strutt admits to being a big-game hunter who kills rare animals. (“It’s a deep primal thing — man versus nature — very pure,” he claims.)
The screenplay, by Matt White, gradually increases the tension in this situation and we wonder how it will all be resolved. Beatriz is outspoken, but she seems to be no match for these successful Americans, all of whom tower over the diminutive Mexican. As the evening wears on, and a great deal of expensive alcohol is consumed, it becomes clear that, to quote one of Strutt’s book titles, this can’t possibly end well.
It’s a bit disappointing, then, that Arteta and White seem not really to know quite how to bring the film to a conclusion. Actually they offer two different endings, so you can take your pick. But it’s a shame that such a powerful and contemporary subject should falter in the final stretch. There are fine performances from the ensemble, with Hayek’s feisty outsider and Lithgow’s smug, self-satisfied tycoon making the most satisfying contributions. Run Lola Run meets Gran Torino in Kriv Stenders’s breathtakingly fast-moving Australia Day, a very well-made thriller set in Brisbane one January 26. These are not the only movies referenced in Stephen M. Irwin’s screenplay, which appears to be modelled after films such as Crash, in which several different stories taking place simultaneously intersect and connect. It’s a good device for combining what is basically a series of short stories.
Most of the characters in the film are on the run. Teenager Lan Chang (Jenny Wu) has been forced into prostitution but has managed to escape from the brothel where she’s been held prisoner. Her pimp is pursuing her, but she’s helped by Terry Friedman (Bryan Brown), a cattle farmer who is driving around the suburban streets apparently aimlessly, though we eventually discover that he has a grim mission in mind.
Meanwhile, April Tucker (Miah Madden) is also on the run; she and her sister were involved in a police chase that ended in a fatal crash in which the sister was killed; April is searching for her mother, a drug addict, while Sonya Mackenzie (Shari Sebbens), an indigenous police officer involved in the fatal pursuit, is desperately trying to locate the girl.
And there’s Chloe (Isabelle Cornish), in love with Sami (Elias Anton), an Iranian youth. Chloe’s brother, Dean (Sean Keenan), and his loutish friends, the sort who drape themselves in the Australian flag and bash Muslims, want revenge on the man they think raped Chloe, even though the relationship was consensual.
This, then, is the “lucky country’’ celebrating its national day with brutality and violence, but Stenders doesn’t dwell too much on the social and political themes in the film. This is primarily a thriller, and a very effective one. The pacing is extremely brisk so there’s little time to ask awkward questions about some aspects of the plotting and the characters.
An excellent ensemble cast brings the characters vividly to life, with Brown’s rugged Terry especially outstanding.
Other major pluses of the film are the photography of Geoffrey Hall, who skilfully uses Steadicam to keep up with the action, and the crisp editing of Nick Meyers. Mountain is a ravishingly beautiful documentary from Jennifer Peedom, director of last year’s Sherpa.
(Disclosure: Peedom was a producer on my documentary, A Cinematic Life.) Mountains all over the world were filmed by a team of cinematographers and the footage has been edited to an original score by Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
Erupting volcanoes and avalanches are spectacular enough, but close-up scenes of mountain-climbing and various extreme sports are tremendously exciting. This demands to be seen on a big cinema screen.
BEATRIZ IS OUTSPOKEN, BUT NO MATCH FOR THESE AMERICANS
Salma Hayek in Beatriz at Dinner, above; Sean Keenan, left, as Dean in a sherpa in