Most people aware of Yorgos Lanthimos know him from Dogtooth, the Academy Award-nominated 2009 Greek film about a very, very sheltered family. It's one of the odder movies you'll ever see, and also one of the best. So it's no surprise that his English-language debut is an obsessively quirky, hilarious depiction of a dystopian universe where single people are turned into animals; the real shock comes from seeing Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz and Ben Whishaw occupy his cinematic world with such comfortability and ease.
Farrell stars as David, the newly unbetrothed resident of the Hotel, a sort of dating center that gives its residents 45 days to find a mate or be turned into a creature of their choosing. David picks the titular lobster, because "they live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives." Also, he loves the sea. Imagine a frumpy Farrell offering up those words in a staccato, monotone voice and you get an inkling of just how The Lobster operates.
But don't think of this as just another unusual, playful comedy. Lanthimos undercuts his humor with moments of extreme shock: a lingering shot of a suicide victim bleeding on the pavement, a man smashing his face into a coffee table, a dog that's been kicked to death, numerous disarming comments about anal sex. What's brilliant, however, is how these blunt, borderline-horrific elements fit with the rest like perfectly shaped puzzle pieces. In the environment he creates, and with the absurdity turned up to 11, the tragedy of life is part of the joke.
What Lanthimos exhibits in his first English foray is an adept ability to mine uncomfortableness; no one is pleased with their particular situation, and any paths to happiness are beset with complications. Eventually, Farrell abandons Whishaw (who is brilliant as a desperate, lying limper) and the Hotel to join with Weisz and Léa Seydoux in a single-people-only counterculture. This, of course, proves just as detrimental as being forced to find a partner; they dance silently to electronic music and are encouraged to dig their own future graves. As David and Weisz's Short Sighted Woman fall in love (largely because they both share that particular defect, a running theme throughout) their relationship finds that sweet spot between genuine and depressing. Lanthimos seems both opposed to allowing happiness and aware of how absurd those barriers to pleasure are.
The real beauty of The Lobster is how well its cast inhabit their roles. Farrell has vacillated between big-budget schlock (Miami Vice, Total Recall) and more thoughtful material (The New World, In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) for years now, but this is the first time he’s thrown himself so deeply into a character. He’s fat, he’s sad, he’s weird; and it’s all so far beyond gunning for an award nomination. No one is handing gold statues to a movie where John C. Reilly has his hand forcefully burned in a toaster for masturbating. This was a labor of love for all involved, and no one shoulders his or her load better than Farrell.
Lanthimos and his screenwriting partner Efthymis Filippou are so purposefully peculiar that it’s difficult to dissect The Lobster on a thematic level. It’s about relationships and individuality and oppression, but it’s also stilted and specific and practically begging pessimistic audiences to disengage as soon as possible. So many moviegoers would find nothing of value, let alone laughter, in a scene where a little girl begs her adopted father to kill an intruder, or a brief play from the dating center’s leaders extolling the Heimlich-providing virtues of a life partner. If Wes Anderson or Tim & Eric are considered acquired tastes, then Lanthimos is syrup of ipecac. But for those who can stomach it, The Lobster is a gift from the cinematic gods that we should be thankful for on a daily basis.