It’s the quiet ones you have to look out for.
The Lobster is the most vicious, dark, brutal satire I’ve seen in years (at least, for most of its runtime) and it seldom raises its voice above deadpan annoyance.
The Lobster is a step into a dystopian world that demands every adult be a part of a couple at all times. If they fail to do so within 45 days of becoming single, they’re turned into an animal. They’re all set to find their partner at a strictly ritualized hotel that seeks force couples to find pairings (often seemingly based on arbitrary and bizarre similarities like a limp or near-sightedness) and that’s where we join our…hero?…David (Colin Farrell), fresh off a divorce and staring down the barrel of becoming a crustacean.
Dystopia has become a little too familiar these days, thanks to the Young Adult “Hunger-Games-rip-off” revolution as well as our impending national nightmare, so it’s important to step back and remind ourselves what makes the genre work.
At its core, dystopian fiction is satirical, exaggerating aspects of a society to suggest that those very aspects will tear it apart. The more fundamental the aspects, the more enduring and terrifying the dystopia. 1984 showed a society controlled through its language and its memory, Farenheit 451 and Brave New World suggest that the human desire for pleasure could easily overwhelm the human desire for freedom.
Despite the deadly serious messages, all are willing to indulge in the bizarreness of their premises, a little light and a little humor breaking through into the darkness. It’s that fundamental humor of dystopia that makes it work. Humor gives us just enough immersion to feel what’s going on so that we can pause and ask “What the fuck is this? Are we really like this?” That’s often what Young Adult dystopian Hunger Games rip-offs forget about,as they’re too busy crafting deadly serious thrills to remember that even Hunger Games mocked American media.
In that messaging, construction is key. Everything about a dystopian story must be like clockwork, details that immerse into a bizarre other world that should just look just enough like our own to frighten us, and that’s what director and writer Yorgos Lanthimos has done here.
The Lobster is like a well-made cuckoo clock. Not a gear is out of place, yet it still feels so bizarre and unique that you can’t imagine there’s another one like it. Lanthimos conducts the film like a ritual that you missed the beginning of, yet knows that it would only ruin the fun to go back and explain.
We’re never told why people get turned into animals if they’re single, or why the world requires coupling, but it doesn’t matter. No one in the movie wonders or asks expository questions, it’s just the way things are. Every design, every bit of weird stilted dialogue, every bizarre rule, every ritual that goes on endlessly speaks to an extraordinary satirical confidence that Lanthimos displays in this film.
It’s a confidence that extends into the performances, and most specifically Colin Farrell. Because holy SHIT is he good in this one. It’s the kind of performance that actors dream of, completely without vanity and impossible to take your eyes off of. It’s a movie that forget Colin Farrell was ever a young punk or a young hunk, and Farrell loses himself under his sad-eyes and his weight and his unflattering clothes and his ability to absolutely lose any bit of confidence or swagger he ever had.
And it’s Colin Farrell that buoys this film all the way through, even when the narrative seems to lose sight of the satire just a bit. The first half at the hotel is everything I’ve been describing, dark and merciless and brilliant. One of the best bits is a scene where David tries to woo a “heartless” woman (Angeliki Papoulia) by letting her choke to death in a hot tub. And it works!
It’s that pitch-perfect identification of the way we view romance (in any other situation, David’s chat with her would have become something more of a “meet-cute”) that Lanthimos knows how to use to twist the knife in us. The Lobster isn’t just looking at how society forces coupling, as would seem obvious.
It’s like the great dystopias I mentioned earlier, The Lobster posits that something as fundamental as love can allow for us to control ourselves better than any oppressive government. The Lobster is about the little tyrannies we visit on ourselves to be in relationships, at least while it’s in the hotel.
This isn’t to say it loses the satirical edge when it escapes the hotel the second half, but it’s certainly dulled. Lanthimos has his own ideas about anti-conformity as a form of conformity, but it seems tacked compared to the insane control he has on his ideas in the first half. But it’s that all-time performance from Farrell and an impeccable visual eye (I barely got into it, but this movie is gorgeous in its bleakness) that manage to keep The Lobster feeling so fresh.
The Lobster isn’t for those in love. It’s too late for you. It’s for those who are just getting out of it or going into it and getting them to pause and ask “Is this really all worth it?”