It’s difficult to imagine exactly what the perfect film for the times we’re currently enduring would (or should) look like. Our society is becoming increasingly polarised, and while for a very long time it seemed like that was just something happening "over there", as we watched with perverse voyeurism the events of the 2016 American election, it’s become increasingly and dismayingly clear that Australia is just as divided. And into this division steps ‘Beatriz at Dinner’.
Directed by Miguel Arteta (‘The Good Girl’, ‘Cedar Rapids’) and written by the underrated, fantastic Mike White (writer of ‘School of Rock’ and the wonderful HBO series ‘Enlightened’), the film positions at its centre the decent and moral Beatriz (Salma Hayek), a holistic health therapist unexpectedly trapped at the home of a wealthy client when her car breaks down. A planned dinner party becomes a battleground as Beatriz faces down her host’s boss, a decidedly Trump-ian figure aptly named Doug Strutt (John Lithgow).
While its premise might suggest a hilarious culture clash comedy, with some cheap jokes and maybe a pat resolution, White, Arteta and Hayek are distinctly uninterested in anything that might be described with the word "easy". Rather than amping up the farce that the synopsis might suggest, what we get instead is a nuanced character study of a fascinatingly good person – a rather uncommon treat. Hayek is at the top of her game here, and she and White together craft a convincingly real person, unencumbered by the saintly righteousness that so often derails similar stories. Beatriz is not a saint, or the perfect icon for any particular issue. She is a prickly, conflicted figure, dealing with her own losses and loneliness, not just personifying a movement or a political ideal. Similarly, Lithgow’s Doug is not just a cartoonish blow-hard Republican – well, to an extent maybe – but Lithgow’s scenery chewing is at the service of an actual character, annoyingly normal and quotidian in his evil.
'BEATRIZ AT DINNER' TRAILER
And really, that’s what this is about – good and evil. Stuck in the middle of this battle are the other hapless, clueless partygoers, including host Kathy (Connie Britton), who genuinely considers Beatriz a friend after helping her daughter through cancer treatment, and insists on her staying for dinner to husband Grant (David Warshofsky), against his protestations. Joining them is younger couple Alex (Jay Duplass) and wife Shannon (Chloë Sevigny), as well as Doug’s third wife Jeana (Amy Landecker). It’s a small, affluent group, and the stifling privilege of each of these people is masked to differing degrees. None of them are simple caricatures, but similarly none of them are actually able to honestly look beyond themselves to see the real clash that is raging in front of them.
No easy answers are provided, but it’s the journey that hits hardest, as Beatriz endures a thousand cuts in tossed-off micro-aggressions. From initially being mistaken as one of the staff, to an uncomfortable grilling on the legality of her immigration, Hayek grounds all of her attacks with a weary stillness. Though it is initially humorous, it becomes harder and harder to stomach as we are allowed into the gradual fraying of Beatriz’ resilience, delicately etched with a palpable fury by Hayek. She tears into this character, easily the meatiest opportunity she’s had in years, with a ferocious zeal, never fully allowing us access to her innermost thoughts, but always conveying the hidden depths under still waters – especially as they become more and more turbulent. It is not an understatement to say that it may be one of the best performances of the year.
Rather than amping up the farce that the synopsis might suggest, what we get instead is a nuanced character study of a fascinatingly good person – a rather uncommon treat.
If the film doesn’t fully live up to its lead actress’ accomplishments, that’s not as much of a knock as it may seem. For a small indie film dealing with everyday occurrences, Arteta is able to create a strikingly impressive visual palette. He creates casually evocative images without obnoxiously drawing attention to them, even though through costuming and framing they have a distinctly subtle theatrical flair.
Much like there are no clear-cut answers to the social divisions that are more and more normal now, neither are there any for Beatriz and her foes. While the film briefly stumbles in one artistic flourish near the end, it manages to instantly regroup itself for a gut-punch of an ending. The moods and views this film evokes have been increasingly hard to shake in the plebiscite-afflicted days since I saw it, so unexpectedly hard and sharp are its textures and tones. Who knows if it’s the perfect film for these divided times, but it is most certainly an incredibly powerful evocation of them.