The dystopian movie genre seems just about exhausted, but “The Lobster” brings enough new to the game to make it worth seeing. It’s a surreal, often unexpected and sometimes mystifying look at a beleaguered individual coping with a society that takes harsh measures against people who fail to pair up romantically.
The punishment is that they are changed into an animal of their choosing, and turned loose into nature. People who run away from the program are hunted down with tranquilizer guns by the more cooperative types. Participants live in a prison that resembles a comfortable country hotel, run by a sinister manager/matron (Olivia Colman).
This is, mostly, par for the course for movies about the unhappy (near) future, but the story takes on added resonance with the appearance of our hero, David (Colin Farrell), who is either astoundingly docile or pretending to be so. He is sent to the hotel after being dumped by his wife, and told that he has 45 days to find a mate, failing which he will be sent to the Transformation Room.
David chooses a lobster for his animal, in part because the creatures are long lived, and he is congratulated for this unusual choice (most people select dogs).
Farrell is outstanding, playing against type in conveying how David quashes any hint of individualism, and seems like the ideal “guest,” except for occasional moments when he seizes an advantage. There’s abundant black comedy as David participates in the hotel’s coercive rituals, including meals and dances where everyone has a chance to find a mate.
He befriends, or at least spends time with, a young male guest and a middle-aged one, both flawed in ways that will impede their ability to pair off. They are played, with nasty relish, by Ben Whishaw and John C. Reilly, part of an impressive cast assembled by the very good Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (“Dogtooth,” “Alps”), making his English-language debut here.
But it’s not all grim humor. Lanthimos is clearly saddened at the loss of affect among the hotel’s residents — and, again, this theme relies heavily on Farrell’s performance. The place is full of lost and terrified souls, and they hardly need to be changed into animals since they’ve already shed much of their humanity.
The film falls off somewhat in the second half, when David flees the hotel to join a group of renegades — the ones hunted by the guests — living in the nearby woods. Here, individualism is everything, and each member is expected to dig his or her own grave. They are led by a formidable young woman (Léa Seydoux), who imposes a regimen as harsh and punitive as the hotel’s.
The second half also introduces the Short-Sighted Woman (many characters are only identified by a singular feature) played by Rachel Weisz. The SSW narrates the movie and will become David’s chief love interest. He woos her by bringing her a couple of rabbits he’s killed — she likes them roasted with peppers. (There are a few scenes in the movie that animal lovers will dislike.)
So there’s a loss of focus once David joins the Loners, and an enigmatic ending that will put off some viewers. But the point is made: The deadness of the emotional life in the hotel, with all its optimistic propaganda, is chilling, but life among the rebels is only marginally preferable, if at all.
Lanthimos should be congratulated for sticking with this melancholy notion. If you can live with its blemishes, “The Lobster” is a bracing experience.
Comedy-drama. With Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Ben Wishaw, John C. Reilly, Olivia Colman and Léa Seydoux. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. (Rated R. 118 minutes.)
To see a trailer: http://bit.ly/1V8z8gd.