Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 22 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—
let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.
For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart,
those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord.
In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, “God will not seek it out”;
all their thoughts are, “There is no God.”
Director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White finished their film before Donald Trump was elected president, but one of the characters couldn’t be more like him, except for two things—he is far more socially gracious, and has a lot less hair. Centering upon a Mexican-American masseuse/wholistic healer living in Southern California, the film’s fish out of water story shines a spotlight on the darker side of American business practices and the sometimes-disastrous ways that they affect those with no power. Salma Hayek’s Beatriz is so diminutive standing next to the others at the dinner party to which she is an unexpected guest that the story physically, as well as symbolically, becomes a David vs. Goliath affair.
At a ritzy Newport Beach mansion therapist Beatriz has just finished a session with Cathy (Connie Britton) when she discovers that her dilapidated VW will not start. Her wealthy client has become more of a friend than a patron because she is convinced that Beatriz’s nursing her sick daughter during a series of chemo treatments was as responsible for the girl’s recovery as were the doctors. Because Beatriz cannot secure a ride until later in the evening, she invites her to stay and join their small dinner party. Not suitably dressed, Beatriz tries to refuse, but Cathy will not take No for an answer—even when she informs her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) and he responds that he thinks this is not appropriate.
The catered dinner party is to celebrate Grant and his partner’s slightly shady business deal with the high-powered mover and shaker Doug Strutt. Thus, the guests include partner Alex (Jay Duplass) and his wife Shannon (Chloë Sevigny), and Doug (John Lithgow) and Jeana Strutt (Amy Landecker). As we will soon see, the project developer Doug has an appropriate last name. He is the kind who enters a room and expects all eyes to focus upon him. As the center of the conversation, he seems to think that everyone should be taking notes so they will remember his pearls of advice gleaned from his recounting his business exploits all over the world. Of course, at first, he thinks Beatriz, dressed as she is, is a servant, and asks her to fetch him a drink. Cathy ignores the scarcely concealed surprise of both couples as she introduces Beatriz, explaining to them how she brought their daughter back to health.
Beatriz at first sits demurely and quietly at the table as the other guests chatter back and forth, mostly about business dealings in Mexico and Panama. The tension begins when she recounts her family history beginning in Mexico, and Strutt interrupts to ask if they came into this country legally. When she describes her healing work, Strutt condescendingly says that this is good, she is contributing something.
The real fireworks begin later when Strutt, passing around his phone displaying a picture of a rhino he has shot, boasts about his exploit. We have seen earlier how much Beatriz loves animals, so her rising anger is no surprise. Calling it murder, the enraged Beatriz loses her cool, hurling the phone across the room at Strutt. She is even more upset later when she realizes that his Mexican hotel project that the others so admire was what disrupted her family and neighbors, destroying her community for the sake of wealthy American tourists.
Beatriz is so upset that she contemplates murder herself. The climax is shattering, and the end of the film is strange, almost enigmatic, which might leave you scratching your head. (I would love to hear what some of you think about it!)
For some this will be a parable comparing society’s predators to those exploited. I can imagine a Jeremiah doing more than throwing Strutt’s cell phone at him. He might have joined the later Galilean prophet who quoted him while turning over scores of another kind of table. When Beatriz leaves the group after her outburst, Cathy comes to see how she is faring. She exclaims to Beatriz, “I don’t even know you,” to which her guest replies, “You don’t.” Obviously during the years of massages and the difficult period when Beatriz nursed her sick daughter, Cathy had never enquired about the healer’s past, or the tragic reason why her family had left Mexico.
Most critics have called this a dark comedy. It is the kind that the jaded Qoheleth might have written could he have become a filmmaker. When Beatriz speaks of how her family and their neighbors had to move out of their homes when Strutt’s project took over their land, I thought of the first verse of Ecclesiastes, “Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them.” The filmmakers pay heart-felt tribute to the little people, while calling the Strutts of the world to account.
Note: There are two trailers on IMDB that provide a good idea of what this film is about.
This review with a set of questions will be in the 2017 issue of VP.