“All tears flow from the same source.”
What would you do if granted the opportunity to sit down with a man who represented all you despise in the world? Would you seize the moment to try and change his ways? Would you interrogate him in an attempt to obtain a greater understanding of his existence and motives? Or would you stab him in the throat, cutting his cancer from this planet with one swift blow?
These are the questions Mike White’s asking with Beatriz at Dinner – the writer’s reunion with director Miguel Arteta (Chuck and Buck) that sees the eponymous holistic healer (portrayed with mousy curiosity by Salma Hayek) stranded in a white oasis whose inhabitants are casually condescending to her brown skin. Even the “help” in this ivory tower – nestled inside a Newport Beach gated community amongst many others just like it – eye her like slaves on a plantation, wanting to know just how “one of them” managed to obtain a seat at the table for tonight’s meal. The truth? Beatriz’s ancient VW broke down following an in-home treatment, and the friend who volunteered to come jump start her hunk of junk can’t make it until the morning. So now she’s dining with the big house’s owners thanks to its outwardly progressive-minded matriarch (Connie Britton), who practically forces her husband (David Warshofsky) to say “yes” after she invites the masseuse. However, this dinner isn’t your usual family sit down, as the courses have been meticulously chosen in order to please the Guest of Honor: Trumpian real estate mogul Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), whose nefarious dealings in the name of establishing a hotel empire have made him both infamous and filthy rich.
From the opening scene, Arteta places us smack dab in Beatriz’s shoes, as she’s awakened that morning by her pet goat, whose bleats she desperately tries to silence before they upset her next-door neighbor. Just the other day, Beatriz arrived home to find the goat’s partner dead in the backyard, his furry neck broken by the hands of an unidentified assailant. She knows it was this man, who’s lodged numerous complaints against her. But her goat never hurt anyone, and Beatriz worked hard to train him, even though she knew the neighborhood isn’t zoned for farm animals. Just as she cares for ailing cancer patients in a clinic every day, Beatriz treasured that goat, having rescued and nurtured it. Now her baby boy’s gone because some aggressive man was annoyed with its harmless existence and the fact that it occasionally woke him in the morning. The symmetrical framing Arteta and cinematographer Wyatt Garfield (Beasts of the Southern Wild) employ makes it clear that this woman is nothing less than canonized in their eyes – Saint Beatriz, a new curative Catholic symbol, traversing a globe that may not have much use for such soldiers of empathy any longer.
No, the world belongs to its Doug Strutts, who seem to be multiplying by the minute as they manifest their capitalist destinies, erecting gaudy condos and resorts where tiny towns used to be. “I know you,” Beatriz says to Doug, her eyes surveying the flawless features of his privileged visage for confirmation that he was the same man who came into her Mexican hometown promising jobs and security, but instead drained the mini-municipality of its resources and sent her ancestors scattering across a stiff, Central American breeze. While the rest of the table (including Jay Duplass and Chloë Sevigny’s ladder-climbing power couple) politely laugh at Doug’s jokes, Beatriz can’t help but completely lose her composure once he shows off a cell phone photo where he’s posing over the corpse of a rhino he shot down while on safari. This is the same man who strangled her goat, who thought nothing of an animal’s feelings before loading a large caliber bullet into a rifle and shooting the majestic beast right between its black eyes. How can she sit here and say nothing while the rest of these ostentatiously “open-minded” goofs (Britton’s mother loves to extoll the virtues of her daughter meeting “gays” and “trans” at college) act like this thug is above morality because he’s made a ton of money?
In a way, Beatriz at Dinner feels like an apocalyptic companion piece to Enlightened, the too-short lived HBO series White co-created with Laura Dern. This film revolves around the same themes of sage-burning hippy dippy types taking on the unprincipled mongers that dominate a free market society. Yet the color of Beatriz’s skin brings a whole new element to the proceedings that Dern’s whiteness couldn’t, as the women size up her frizzy hair and beltless khaki massage therapist garb, and the men ask her to refresh their drinks, thinking she’s just another member of the staff. Though Britton’s housewife is well-meaning in the bond she develops with the immigrant, even Beatriz knows they will never be equals. Under no circumstances beyond the ones that forced this breaking of bread to occur would the two ever socialize outside of a patient/practitioner scenario. Beatriz is, and always will be, the “help” to these people, snickering at her suggestions of apple cider vinegar and dandelion root as a home remedy for ailments they can’t seem to get rid of. It’s all black Mexican magic to these Caucasian dilettantes, whether they admit it or not.
Where some will find the ending ambiguous, it’s hard not to read it as a bleak, uncompromising conclusion on White and Arteta’s part. Here is a woman who has her standing in a white dominated society confirmed over the course of one meal, and Hayek (who gives a performance as subtly good as any you’re bound to witness in ‘17) sells the sinking feeling in Beatriz’s stomach with every flicker of her big brown orbs. Only what her gut’s telling her isn’t simply that she doesn’t belong in this white house – it’s that Doug Strutt and his ilk have now come into power, and won’t be satisfied until all people like her realize their place is to exist beneath Doug’s boot heels. Consequently, Beatriz at Dinner becomes a work of squirmy discomfort fit for the Trump era, as a Mexican woman is forced to either accept her place while this ruling class is in power, or perhaps find another mortal plane on which to exist. To kill these men is to lower yourself to their standing as devils lurking amongst the tall grass, waiting for those who call it home to trust and allow them to burn it down in the name of erecting a new annex on their kingdom. She and her people are the goat, and Doug Strutt has his hands firmly around their necks, screaming at them to submit or die. There’s no happy outcome once we take a seat at the table with monsters.