This is a film about escalation, about small moments becoming larger ones, about pleasant conversation becoming hostile, and in a not insignificant way, it’s about the powerless overtaking the powerful, if only for a moment. With an electric and taut screenplay by Mike White (Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl) Beatriz at Dinner could have easily been staged as a play since it mostly takes place at the opulent home of Kathy and Grant (Connie Britton and David Warshofsky), who are staging a dinner party to celebrate the closing of a big real estate deal on behalf of hotel tycoon Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), who attends along with his wife Jeana (Amy Landecker). Also among the guests is Alex (Jay Duplass), a young hotshot who was instrumental in cutting a few corners and making the deal happen quickly, and his wife Shannon (Chloë Sevigny).
The odd person out is Beatriz (Salma Hayek), a spiritual and holistic healer who works for Kathy and Grant, and helped their daughter (now in college) through a difficult recovery from cancer treatment. They say they think of Beatriz as family, and to a degree that may be true, and when her car breaks down and she is stranded at the home after giving Kathy her regular massage session, they invite her to stay, assuming she’ll be a silent (or at least soft-spoken) guest at their gathering.
It’s strange and incredible to see Hayek play a character so meek and undervalued by those around her. Beatriz is the type of person that pours all of her energy into the care of others, without a thought to her own well being. Her lifestyle has taken its toll on her sense of self worth, but it’s also empowered her principles and values when it comes to living creatures of all shapes and sizes. And not surprisingly, she reacts badly when Doug begins to show his true colors when it comes to “lesser” people, the environment, animals he hunts for sport on safaris, and a general callous attitude toward those who aren’t on the path toward accumulating wealth in the same way he has.
Director Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt, Cedar Rapids) does a masterful job keeping things moving, tensions mounting, and emotions bristling as Beatriz continues to inject herself into the evening’s various conversations. It’s clear the guests are only being polite to her because she seems so close to Kathy, but little by little, the polite facade begins to fall away. When Beatriz tells Doug her story of first coming to America from Mexico, he immediately asks her if she entered the country legally, as if this has become the most important question of the night and everything else she might say would be tainted if she gave the wrong answer. It’s one of many stomach-tightening moments in which Beatriz is increasingly disrespected or outright spoken down to.
It’s clear that when Beatriz finally loses her cool with Doug and the other guests, it happens almost unexpectedly and uncontrollably. Alone with Kathy, she apologizes (and even offers a lovely Mexican song to soothe tensions), but is enraged again by the callous attitudes that prevail in the house. The film builds to an unexpected climax that isn’t the end of the story, but it’s a moment that rattles Beatriz to such a degree that she takes her leave as a different, much sadder person.
Beatriz at Dinner features one of the most interesting and layered performances Hayek has ever accomplished, and the sentiments she’d expressing and defending seem to acutely aware of the times we’re living in that it feels the film were made yesterday. This immediacy reminds us of the feeling live theater gives us, both in terms of the energy and the discomfort when things turn ugly among the guests. The film is deliberately provocative, as if it’s daring you to look away. I wouldn’t if I were you.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.