Thanks to a rigorous strategy of willful media blindness (which is mightily difficult for me to pull off in the midst of my almost compulsive consumption of the entertainment news and reviews blipping across the internet), I sat down to watch The Lobster, the new film from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, with practically no knowledge of the plot. I recommend the approach. This isn’t because The Lobster relies on nutty shocks to make an impact. The insightfulness of its layered metaphors are such that even those well acquainted with the ins and outs of the narrative would face no shortage of bits to unpack (it’s a film that practically cries out for repeat viewings). Instead, going in with a slate approaching blankness feels like the proper way to meet creativity this boundless. Along with co-credited screenwriter Efthymis Filippou, Lanthimos has come up with a story that takes the inventiveness of fiction to giddy extremes. It’s better to enter into this sort of world with eyes focused straight instead of drifting over to the tether of a previously studied map.
With any relations of the plot off-limits, I’ll default to simply doling out praise. Besides the laudable deployment of ideas in the screenplay, Lanthimos brings a remarkable command of tone to the film. There is a bleak comedy to it, but also a rueful empathy. He offers an assessment of social pressures that comes across as so up-to-the-minute that it is at once fiercely prescient. Without actually incorporating any specific commentary on the way technology shapes contemporary social and romantic connection, Lanthimos finds a way to touch on the existential ache and emotional distancing caused by the reductive, shorthand methodologies of modern human interaction. It is simultaneously pointed in its evaluation and wisely lax in its wandering energy. Lanthimos captures the wounded comings and goings of the various characters with skillful images that make the film seem like a forlorn realist painting shuddering to life, or maybe shuffling off to a withering death. Either way, it’s quietly, confidently gorgeous.
The strangeness of the film’s core premise provides a treacherous bounty for the actors. There’s room to push into slightly more stylized work, the coating of the unreal allowing for choices that reverberate on their own wavelengths. But it’s also critical to keep the performances grounded, holding fast to a recognizable internal logic to provide reconnections to the necessary truthfulness that the more fanciful plot flourishes threaten send spinning off into the ether. There’s fine work in this regard by both seasoned pros (Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw) and comparative newcomers (Jessica Barden, Lanthimos mainstay Angeliki Papoulia). The film’s defining performance comes from Colin Farrell, doing career-best work in the leading role. With his measured, chilled turn, Farrell captures the forcibly contained anxiety of the depicted culture. In particular, he has a fine skill for depicting moments of stiff play-acting, preventing them from being overly comedic to the point of falsehood by keeping a slender sinew of connectivity between the impersonation of sincerity and the character’s base uncertainty and social awkwardness. Farrell’s acting suits the totality of The Lobster. It achieves a deep, abiding honesty through unguarded commitment to the blessedly unexpected.