As the song says, one is the loneliest number. But briefly in Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ English language film debut, “The Lobster,” it is also the funniest number. Then the movie begins a slow descent into darkness, and never climbs out of it. I would have been disappointed if it had, as I found the movie to be a challenging and thoughtful work.
“The Lobster” gets its name from the animal its central character, David, chooses to become if he’s unable to find a partner after arriving at a hotel where single people are forcibly sent. He has 45 days to find a match, after which he’ll be turned into the tasty crustacean. Fresh from a divorce, he chooses the lobster because of its long life span and his love of the sea. “A lobster is an excellent choice,” the hotel manager tells him. Another guest mocks his decision, telling him he’ll be caught, boiled alive, and buttered for consumption.
While the idea of being turned into an animal might seem fantastical to us, the viewers, it seems unremarkable to the characters in the film. Lanthimos quickly exposes the science fiction roots of “The Lobster,” but doesn’t dwell them. In fact, as I viewed the movie, I thought of it more as metaphor than fantasy.
“The Lobster” is funniest as Lanthimos introduces the world in which it’s set. His sense of humor is as dry as a tumbleweed, but also rich. As David is checking into the hotel, the clerk asks him if he has any family. “Just my brother,” he says, nodding toward the dog at his feet. “He came here a few years ago, and was unsuccessful.”
In another scene that made me chuckle, the hotel guests practice shooting at paper targets. “It’s no coincidence that the targets are shaped like single people and not couples,” says the instructor. Just as funny is a line about being given a child if a budding relationship appears to be not working out. “That usually helps,” the hotel manager says. The humor in “The Lobster” reveals some of the misguided notions in our society about relationships and being alone, and cuts deep even as it makes us laugh.
To extend their stay at the hotel, guests are taken on hunting excursions during which they try to shoot “Loners,” people who have chosen to live by themselves in the woods, with tranquilizers. This is illegal, as is being single. If I heard correctly, the fate of a captured loner is far less desirable than being turned into an animal.
Following a decision that yields tragic results, David leaves the hotel and joins the community of Loners in the forest. There, the rules are flipped: If he has physical contact with another person or becomes romantically involved, he’ll be punished in a way that ensures it’ll never happen again. Of course, he meets a lady known only as Short-Sighted Woman, and they fall in love.
As I intimated, “The Lobster” is as dark as it is funny. While the ending of the film didn’t make me laugh (the final shot is steeped in loneliness and ambiguity), it did make me think. As I left the theater, I pondered how our cultural norms seem to assume each of us will have a partner, and punish people for being alone. For example, I wouldn’t go to a nice restaurant by myself on a Friday night; people would stare, and I’d be embarrassed. So we sometimes make choices that go against our grain simply so we don’t have to be alone.
In addition to be a compelling essay on the nature of human relationships and being alone, “The Lobster” is entertaining – if you like quirky films. However, while Lanthimos does swim in strange waters, his style of filmmaking is not so odd “The Lobster” becomes inaccessible. Add a terrific performance by a shiftless, pudgy, greying Colin Farrell as David and superb supporting turns by the rest of the cast, and you have two hours well spent.
Three-and-a-half stars out of four. Rated R for sexual content and some violence.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at email@example.com.