Midway through The Lobster, I was struck by the realization that I had never seen another movie quite like it before. Sure, there were things that struck me as possible sources of inspiration: a little Kafka here, a little Wes Anderson there, a fair amount of Charlie Kaufman sprinkled on top. Even so, The Lobster is a genuinely unique work of art: a surrealist, sci-fi symphony of relationship-themed metaphorical triggers that doubles as a wildly inventive comedy and as an unsettling thriller.
The film unfolds in a world where the law requires every person of a certain age to find a suitable romantic partner. Each person is taken to the Hotel, where they're given a certain numbers of days to fall in love with someone. If they fail, they will be turned into an animal of their choosing.
David (Colin Farrell, In Bruges) – a weary-looking middle-aged man who suffers from back pain and has just gotten out of a twelve-year relationship – has decided that his animal of choice is a lobster. Why a lobster? Because he likes the sea, and because lobsters live for one hundred years. “A lobster is an excellent choice,” the Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman, The Night Manager) replies. “The first thing most people think of is a dog. That's why there are so many dogs.”
There are a lot of rules and regulations to observe, however... it's not just as simple as getting someone to agree to partner up with you for the sake of self-preservation. You have to find someone who is “matched” with you in some way: maybe they have the same personality type as you, or maybe you suffer from the same affliction, or perhaps you enjoy the same things. If you attempt to cheat the system, well, you'll be turned into an animal. No masturbation is permitted at the Hotel, guests are required to view daily theatrical performances that stress the importance of being in a relationship and certain parts of the grounds are off-limits to single people. Perhaps the oddest wrinkle is the daily hunting ritual: guests are given tranquilizer rifles, sent off into the woods and told to hunt Loners... single people who are trying to live outside the system. For each Loner you tranquilize, you get an extra day added to your stay at the Hotel (thus giving you more time to fall in love).
The film's first hour or so is nothing short of genius-level filmmaking; an almost staggeringly inventive, thoroughly absorbing cinematic high-wire act. The second hour isn't bad – it's very good, in fact – but isn't as consistently stunning. Without spoiling the direction the film takes, I'll say that The Lobster's second half is designed as both a reflection of and response to the first, and that it focuses heavily on an evolving relationship between David and a character played by Rachel Weisz (The Mummy).
The film is overflowing with intriguing ideas, and director Yorgos Lanthimos does an expert job of mining a strange-but-potent combination of tension, laughter, sweetness and terror from them. At a glance, the story appears to be about the pressures the world places on single people, but the film quickly reveals itself to be much more than that. Indeed, in its own off-kilter way, the film pokes and prods at an abundance of topics: the overwhelming desire to be in a relationship, the overwhelming desire to have individual freedom, the way many relationships are built on deception, the way challenges can test our devotion to our partner, the way the grass always seems to look greener somewhere else, the rarity of being able to find genuine, long-lasting happiness with another person... no matter what your relationship status, there's a strong chance the film will hit you on some sort of personal level.
Farrell's performance is a reminder that he can be a tremendous actor when he isn't asked to play a conventional leading man. His work is subdued, persuasively pained (in more ways than one) and just enigmatic enough to keep us guessing about his true feelings. Weisz does fine work, too... she doesn't appear during the film's first half, but does provide crisp, emotionless narration. Her line readings feel like a tonal gimmick at first, but begin to take on a new shade after we actually meet the character. The supporting cast is full of fine little turns: Ben Whishaw (Skyfall) as the self-preserving Limping Man, John C. Reilly (Magnolia) as the very John C. Reilly-ish Lisping Man, Lea Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color) as a steely Loner and Ashley Jensen (Extras) as the film's saddest, most desperate character.
The Lobster wields its deadpan tone in a variety of fascinating ways, using it to give certain moments a dryly hilarious vibe and to give others an air of pitiless savagery. Somehow, the movie manages to feel both heartfelt and heartless... often at the same time. There's such deep longing beneath the surface of this movie, and there are numerous moments when that longing is punctuated with swift cruelty. Not all of the film's mysteries will be easily decoded, but I can't wait to keep exploring them.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Year: 2016