During his preliminary interview upon arrival at the program, David is asked the big question. If he does not fall in love with someone during his 45-day stay, what animal would he like to be transformed into? David chooses the lobster. His reasons are fully thought-out: Lobsters live for 100 years, they remain fertile, and they have blue blood, like aristocrats. Plus, he likes the sea. He’s been swimming for years.
The Lobster is like this: full of specific detail, but coy about saying what the hell is actually going on. It’s the first English-language film by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose 2009 Dogtooth was a fine exercise in making skin crawl. Like that film, The Lobster comes on like a vaguely sinister George Saunders story, where it takes a while for the actual parameters of this self-contained world to disclose themselves. So we’ll tread lightly on blowing the plot.
David (Colin Farrell, appropriately chunky and slow) is a single man of a certain age, which means he is required to check into a deluxe hotel for the purpose of finding a mate. He’s brought along a dog, which—it slowly dawns on us—is actually his older brother, whose failed attempt to find a mate resulted in him being transformed into a canine. “The first thing most people think of is a dog,” says the hotel’s manager, played by the superb Olivia Colman, as she compliments David on his offbeat choice of lobster. “Which is why the world is full of dogs.”
At the hotel, David makes a couple of friends (Ben Whishaw and John C. Reilly are fully cued into the film’s deadpan mode), but struggles to mate. It seems singles must pair up with people who share their “defining characteristic,” a difficult match-up. In desperation, David pretends to be as awful as the sourpuss known only as the Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulis, from Dogtooth) in the hope that cruelty might be their shared characteristic. But he’s too kind for that.
Out in the woods roams another population, also singles, led by a no-nonsense warrior (Léa Seydoux). This is where Rachel Weisz finally appears onscreen, although we’ve been hearing her voice throughout. (I don’t entirely understand why she narrates the movie, but in my universe Rachel Weisz should narrate all movies, so it’s fine.) If this woodsier second half falls off in intensity from the first, it still builds to a supremely troubling ending. The Lobster is maybe a little too pleased with its mysterious and enigmatic qualities, but even if you find it exasperating, Lanthimos’ command of film style is constant. This is true from the movie’s first moments, an unexplained sequence involving a woman driving to the side of the road and pulling over to shoot an animal grazing there. The tone, the sound, the composition—the way the mist beads up on the windshield, the wipers clearing it off every few seconds so we can witness the standoff with the animal—all the tools are perfectly deployed.
And even if you don’t cotton to this brand of cult-friendly oddness, it’s hard to deny Lanthimos’ skill with actors. Everybody performs as though they’ve been given deep backgrounds on their characters and this imaginary world, very little of which is divulged to the audience. Let’s pause to give special credit to Colin Farrell, speaking in his own Irish accent here (the film was beautifully shot on his native isle by cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis—an Irish name if ever I heard one). I found Farrell’s early performances superficial, as though he’d been thrown into the deep end without anybody telling him how to tread water. But ever since In Bruges—which really might be a modern masterpiece—he’s been turning in strong, flexible work. Here he’s completely submerged in David’s numb sadness, and he holds the screen without seeming to do anything at all.
The Lobster is being marketed as a comedy, and it is frequently funny, but only in the way A Clockwork Orange is frequently funny. Go and have a laugh, for sure, but don’t be shocked when the claws come out.