For an intensely sad and cynical movie, The Lobster’s one good idea is awfully whimsical. It imagines a dystopian parallel world much like our own, but which takes a dementedly strong pro-marriage stance. All single people must find a mate; if they do not, they’ll be turned into the animal of their choosing. When we meet sad-sack Colin Farrell – he’s put on some weight to make his hangdog mood look extra saggy – he’s just been dumped by his unseen wife, left to trudge to a singles’ resort with his brother, who had similar misfortune and is now a dog. It’s an irresistible concept, and one sure to provoke good conversation and perhaps some honest self-reflection. I think I’d be a house cat; they’ve all the pampered benefits of dogs with none of the expectations of excitation. (And I like napping in patches of sunshine.) Sadly, the movie’s not as playful as its animating concept might lead one to believe.
When Farrell is asked what animal he’d want to be if, after his allotted time to be unattached, he can’t find a suitable match, he has his answer ready: a lobster. The hotel’s chipper manager (Olivia Colman) finds that refreshing. Most people pick more popular animals. The fields around the hotel feature the occasional rabbit, horse, camel, flamingo, and so on. I found myself wondering who they might’ve been in an earlier life. That’s later, though. First we must trudge through a stay in this sad hotel, where Farrell meets friends like a dopey lisper (John C. Reilly) who would like to be a parrot, and a fussy limper (Ben Whishaw) who’d rather not think about that question thank you very much. There are also potential mates, like a shockingly youthful nose-bleeder (Jessica Barden), an anxious biscuit-chomping lady (Ashley Jensen), and a woman we learn has no feelings whatsoever (Angeliki Papoulia).
The film’s central premise is worked out with misanthropic deadpan. Writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose breakthrough feature was 2009’s memorable Dogtooth, an equally imprisoned and methodical exploration of a locked-in system of perverse human behavior, creates the hotel as the stifling inverse of a mischievous Wes Anderson mood. It has a suffocating rigidity to Thimios Bakatakis’s static cinematography, trapping its characters with either too much or not enough head space, squirming with resigned discomfort like butterflies pinned behind glass while barely alive, wriggling but clearly doomed. The patrons spend their days forced to watch silently as staff acts out skits about the dangers of being alone, and then they get death-marched into painfully stilted dances and awkward chitchat around sad little meals. Once daily they’re driven out to the wilderness on a hunt, told to use tranquilizer darts to shoot and collect loners who’ve escaped the hotel pre-transformation and now live illegally in the woods. Each person caught buys the hunter an extra day before the coupling deadline.
This is distancing movie, slow and repetitive as it watches the sad desperate routines of its characters. A closed loop of behavior operating under cruel impenetrable logic, the rigorous framing drains the characters of agency. They’re trapped in a cruel world, explored by a cold story. It’s tedious and increasingly pointless, wallowing in misery, dispassionately nasty and mean. A dog is kicked to death. A woman is blinded. A man is forced to stick his hand in a hot toaster. For a movie purporting to have cutting or otherwise incisive ideas about relationships – the torture of loneliness, and the desperation it can breed for finding One True Love – it’s too hollow, forced, passionless. The actors speak uniformly in a flat affect, mumbling as they talk past each other, glumly focused on their fate. There’s no energy to their goals. They simply shrug and trudge, hunched over and preemptively drained. Maybe they would be better off as animals. Is that such a tragedy?
Lanthimos uses dreary colors to enhance the oppressive mood. Stings of classical music mix with self-amused straight-faced absurdism. One couple is dutifully celebrated in the hotel’s conference room, sent off to see if the marriage will stick with the encouragement that if they have problems they’ll be given children. “That usually helps,” the manager quips. We continue on, counting down the days until Farrell will be made into a lobster. The movie never progresses beyond the basics of its setup, with few complications, escalations, or contradictions to keep things moving along. Instead it just grinds on and on, a deadening effect rendering what starts as wry and shocking merely numbing. Eventually one character flees the hotel and meets a variety of characters hiding out in the woods – a group led by Léa Seydoux that includes Rachel Weisz, who has also been narrating the whole thing in a largely emotionless monotone. Alas, freedom of sorts is shot in the same stultifying icy precision as the hotel, and slumps on for ages in a tiresome slog.
This is the sort of infuriating movie that slowly and steadily drains all interest and inquisitiveness from a killer concept. At first I was leaning in, eager to see an imaginative vision. By the time it lost me, I found myself itching to leave, as one excruciating scene after the next failed to build or move or provoke. It strands charismatic performers in a flat, uninteresting style, punctuating long stretches of dead air with splashes of cruelty and depression. It creates an interesting allegory and proceeds to take care it almost never intersects with recognizable human emotions. It offers only empty futility, distended bleak glibness hoping its heaviness and pessimism get mistaken for profundity. What a waste. At one point a character asks if she could watch Stand By Me, and I wanted to go with her. Later, in the film’s final moments, a man prepares to stab himself in the eyes with a steak knife. By that time I could almost relate.