In 1984, Blood Simple was released. A nasty slice of Texas noir, it showcased a mix of comedy, cruelty, and oddly formalized dialogue. It only could have been written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
In 1989, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was released. Set in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year, it’s an achingly romantic and fiery look at the neighborhood and the people who live there. Nobody but Spike Lee could have created this masterpiece.
In 1992, Reservoir Dogs was released. Quentin Tarantino’s crime thriller about a jewel heist gone terribly wrong made an immediate impact on the cinematic landscape. Nobody had ever seen or heard anything like it.
That’s one of the great aspects of film. It’s a given that somebody, somewhere, is making something visionary. Sure, sometimes you have to wade through soulless monstrosities like X-Men: Apocalypse to get to the good stuff. But every year without fail, there’s something that hits your eyeballs and, like our good buddy Keanu Reeves, makes you sit back in charming confusion and utter, “Whoa.” Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster is one of those films. It’s not for everybody, but great art shouldn’t go down easy.
A surreal work of vicious satire, The Lobster introduces us to David (Colin Farrell), being dumped by his girlfriend. That’s bad enough, but in David’s world, the stakes for single people are much higher. Here, the single people of the world have 45 days to find a partner. If they can’t, they are transformed into the animal of their choosing. He is taken to The Hotel, a lonely retreat in the middle of nowhere, and given an anonymous and somewhat shabby room. The guests attend demonstrations in a lecture hall, where they learn about the dangers of being alone. David goes to a dance that is profoundly unromantic.* It’s not a complete wash since he befriends a couple of other “guests.” There’s The Lisping Man (John C. Reilly), who doesn’t appear to have great prospects for couplehood. There’s also The Limping Man (Ben Whishaw), who has run into a problem. The relationship rules are brutally simple. Everybody identifies themselves by a single characteristic, and must find a partner who shares that characteristic. David is nearsighted, so his ideal match is someone with the same visual impairment. The Limping Man, however, has fallen for Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden) and goes to ridiculous lengths to prove that he, too, has nosebleeds.
It gets stranger. One of the daily activities involves the guests being given a tranquilizer rifle and a handful of darts. They’re bused into the woods and ordered to hunt The Loners. These people have escaped from The Hotel and are part of a loose-knit band led by the chilling Loner Leader (Lea Seydoux). One of their numbers is the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), and no extra points for you if you guess who she becomes involved with.
We have the misfortune of living in a society that values couples more than individuals. It’s bad enough if you’re single and you’re bombarded during Valentine’s Day with relentless messages of “romance.” If you’re a woman, it’s even worse when you have to constantly deal with gender-weighted titles like “Mrs.” or “Miss.” that force you to partially define yourself by your relationship status.** None of this is oppressive, but it is highly irritating, and it’s not easy to opt out. The Lobster takes those concepts and runs like hell with them. It does so correctly. Like Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal or Dr. Strangelove, there’s never a moment where the film winks at us and assures us it’s all just a harmless gag. Lanthimos plays it deadly serious, which in many ways, makes things miles funnier. He’s also interested in social constructs, and the infinite ways that human beings chafe against them.
Lanthimos also co-wrote the screenplay. Along with his co-writer Efthymis Filippou, they have created a voice and tone for the film that is singular. The characters of The Lobster speak in a weird monotone. There’s no subtext, no nuance, and while there’s humor, it’s rarely intentional. For example, one scene shows us the Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman) counseling a new couple. She tells them, with a hilariously straight face, “If you encounter any problems you cannot resolve yourselves, you will be assigned children. That usually helps.”
This film is one that demands fearlessness from its actors. It’s a delicate balancing act, and it would come crashing down if even one cast member wasn’t properly tuned into the particular frequency. We’re lucky, considering the cast is stuffed with adventurous souls. Hollywood wanted to turn Colin Farrell into a non-threatening leading man initially. But he’s the kind of actor who thrives when allowed to sink his teeth into something unique. We saw that with his tormented hitman in In Bruges, and his blocked screenwriter in Seven Psychopaths. He’s wonderful here, and as David, he’s obedient, soft, and incurious. In other words, he’s a perfect example of 21st-century humanity.
He’s perfectly partnered with Rachel Weisz. She’s another actor that has triumphantly flipped the bird to Hollywood. Yeah, she’s done solidly mainstream work like The Mummy or The Bourne Legacy, but when you give her material that’s intelligent and meaty, she can go toe-to-toe with anyone.*** Weisz brings a bubbly energy to her roles, and as Short Sighted Woman, it’s endlessly entertaining watching it get tamped down and constantly threaten to boil to the top.
So, yeah, The Lobster is different. It’s aggressively unlike the regular Friday night at the movies, and that’s a good thing! It’s a film that’s daring and wildly inventive. Like Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee, Yorgos Lanthimos is one of those filmmakers that should be given $100 million every few years and encouraged to make whatever the hell he wants. Art is tough to find these days, especially considering how risk-averse we’ve become. Real artists are like rare flowers. They should be sheltered, nurtured, and encouraged to bloom. If you want art with teeth, check out The Lobster.
*Hey, it’s not like Tindr is that much better.
**England has started using the gender-neutral honorific Mx. (pronounced miks) for folks who are nonbinary or don’t want to reveal their gender. You can expect Donald Trump to start screaming about that any time now.
Want a Rachel Weisz performance for the ages? Check her out in The Constant Gardener, she’s amazing.