The dinner table scene is probably one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history. If you come to think of it, most of our cherished childhood movies, binge-watched series or all-time favourites contain this scene. This is not pure coincidence, for it’s a perfect way to get to know the characters and how they interact with each other. These scenes show much more than simply eating, so let’s explore the meaning behind them and why they have become an all-time cinema classic.
“Show don’t tell” is perhaps the greatest advice Hollywood can give you; it’s what takes a movie from good to great. As an audience, we want to discover the characters, understand their situation and become a part of their world. If we are fed information, we lose the need to be observant, attentive, and the movie simply becomes less immersive. For instance, the dinner table scenes in Breaking Bad (2008) teach us about the relationships between Walter, Skyler and Junior. Progressing through the seasons, table scenes emphasised Walter’s absence in the family life: getting home with dinner already served and often ending with discussions about where he has been or why he has not been covering the responsibilities of fatherhood. Having such scenes make the audience comprehend the family situation much more than having Skylar tell Junior that Walter is not coming to dinner, for example.
However, the versatility of this scene allows the director to play with context and characters, creating a tense and awkward moment when Jesse is invited to dinner as Walter’s co-worker; showing to the spectators how Skylar is not the biggest fan of Mr. Pinkman.
We all know the process of a dinner: you eat, make a few jokes, talk about your day and call it a night. Therefore, when a meal goes wrong in a film, we especially notice because we are used to dinners going a certain way. And that’s what gives a dinner scene so much potential: either for humour or for drama.
Whether you are a gangster or a superhero, you have to eat and that makes you human. Showing characters eating is relatable; it makes the audience place themselves into their shoes. When James Bulger (Black Mass 2015), one of the most brutal American mobsters, has dinner with his buddies, it softens his character and allows the audience to see him in a safer and more personal environment. We might not relate to killing people on the streets or robbing banks but we definitely relate to getting into an argument at the table.
In a dinner scene in Black Mass (2015), James Bulger sits with his pals and asks Morris, the dinner host, for the secret recipe behind the steak they are eating. It’s a family secret! – Morris answers. James asks again and gets the same answer. On the third try, Morris relents, sharing the secret which results in laughter and the following response from James:
– You said to me it was a family secret, and you gave it up to me Boom (snaps fingers) just fucking like that. Don’t look to John cause he’s not gonna fucking help you. You spill the family secret up today you’ll be spilling me out tomorrow. Is that something, maybe that’s a possibility?
(suspenseful silence continues)
This confrontation exposes Bulger’s ruthlessness and his power, having the dialogue act as a metaphorical knife-fight while chatting about a steak recipe.
When people come together for dinner it’s typically a peaceful meeting, but that’s not always the case. Dinner scenes are a perfect way to show conflict. When people storm out, throw dishes or stay alone, that shows us a lot about the characters without having to tell us much. So, a successful meal tells us the opposite: casual meal = no addition of information.
The Incredibles (2004) employs the dinner scene to portray how the family interacts: Dash likes to pick on his sister Violet, Mr. Incredible doesn’t add much to the conversation and Elastigirl is the one in charge of coordinating the whole get-together. Conflict arises between the siblings and the parents try to manage the situation. For the audience, it is incredibly funny as the family does its best to control the hustle without over-using their superpowers.
Dinner doesn’t always go smoothly. It doesn’t in real life and it certainly doesn’t for characters in film. Since we can relate to how awkward a movie can be, it can become that much funnier when the meal doesn’t go as expected.
So, next time you come across a dinner table scene in a movie, don’t take a break to go to the bathroom or refill your drink, sit back and pay attention, for something important is about to happen.