Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos || Produced by: Ceci Dempsey, Lee Magiday [Lobster, Favourite], Ed Guiney, Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenplay by: Efthimis Filippou, Yorgos Lanthimos [Lobster, Killing], Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara [Favourite] || Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Barden, Olivia Colman, John C. Reilly, Lea Seydoux, Ben Wishaw [Lobster], Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan [Killing], Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult [Favourite]
Cinematography: Thimios Bakatakis [Lobster, Killing], Robbie Ryan [Favourite] || Edited by: Yorgos Mavropsaridus || Country: Ireland, United Kingdom || Language: English
Running Time: 118-121 minutes
It’s no secret I have limited patience for slow-moving, dialogue-heavy dramas with “quirky” senses of humor, metaphorical plot-devices, or self-serious political themes. Ostensibly transgressive “indie-dramas” (whatever the hell that term means) or Oscar-bait favorites meant to “revolutionize” the social fabric of filmmaking test my patience like little else in the popular arts. This site is littered with diatribes on how lazy and un-cinematic most film dramas are — including high-profile critical darlings — how they rely on dialogue and theatrical exposition to drive their stories rather than visuals, character actions, blocking, or moving bodies. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand thousand times: These things are called motion-pictures, not talking pictures.
Taking a non-genre (re: non-cinematic) story and transforming it into a visual narrative, however, showcases considerable skill and cinematic vision. Rising dramatic star, Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, is no glorified theatre director masquerading as a hard-hitting, socially conscious auteur, nor one who puts his soap box before the craft he wields. After building a repertoire of acclaimed features in his native Greece, Lanthimos transitioned to the English-language drama scene with the absurdist black comedy, The Lobster (2015), then built atop that with a more realistic yet far creepier thriller in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), before achieving mainstream critical and commercial success with 2018’s period drama, The Favourite.
Still, perusing Rottentomatoes or Google search results bombards one with numerous reviews stating how much of a turnoff these films’ robotic acting, absurdist premises, and yes, quirky humor can be; these negative audience reactions are mixed with both critical and casual positive reviews that agree Lanthimos’ style can feel dry, monotone, and a little too full of itself. Do you see where I’m going with this? The dilemma I have with films like The Lobster, Sacred Deer, and The Favourite, which otherwise fit the bill of so much I loathe in cinema culture, is how cinematic they are while still irritating me the same way a Dairy of a Teenage Girl (2015) or Boyhood (2014) might. All three films are hindered by pacing issues, questionable dialogue, and on-the-nose themes to varying degrees, yet all have Lanthimos’ identifiable visual style, editing, and charismatic auteur stamp. These are difficult films for me to review.
Easing that task a bit is how The Lobster, Sacred Deer, and The Favourite proceed from least to most recommendable. Whether Lanthimos is consciously learning from his mistakes, taking detailed feedback from peers or critics, or filming on instinct, his English-language filmography is gaining steam with mainstream acceptance. On that he deserves respect.
To start, The Lobster is an amusing, memorable, and… quirky comedy of the dystopian sort, a la Terry Gilliam. Numerous times throughout The Lobster I recalled the conflicted feelings I had watching Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), a good film that also made for one of my worst viewing experiences ever, and a film I shall never again watch. The Lobster’s absurdist premise imagines an alternate reality whereby all of society are either trained (re: brainwashed) into accepting monogamous relationships or are transformed into animals. Single folk are marched through a totalitarian 45-day “romance bootcamp” that is either the funniest reeducation penitentiary or the most dehumanizing rehabilitation center of all time. Those few who rebel escape into the countryside to live in a less outwardly rigid yet still fundamentalist guerrilla tribe where romance is forbidden.
The narrative is an obvious satire on modern love and marriage, as well as the contrarian, anti-establishment backlash to it. This premise is so obvious, one-dimensional, and repetitive the movie drives it into the ground over two of the longest, most poorly paced hours of filmmaking you’ll ever watch. Things aren’t helped by every character’s dry, robotic, monotone delivery, nor the movie’s sleep-inducing soundtrack, both clear stylistic choices by Lanthimos. That being said, the story’s sense of humor is sidesplitting, while Lanthimos’ extended slow-motion sequences of romance-trainees hunting down single people are a riot. The film also ends on a strong note, finding a relatable middle-ground between the diegesis’ two cartoonish extremes, even if the overall premise has about as much depth to support a short film.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer improves Lanthimos’ pacing issues with a more intriguing premise — a cardiologist (Colin Farrell) kills a patient through surgical negligence, then has his family suffer a supernatural hex from the patient’s vengeful son (Barry Keoghan) — and mixes The Lobster’s sardonic acting with semi-realistic characters and better dialogue. Lanthimos’ directing recalls Stanley Kubrick over Gilliam, here, with cinematographer and fellow Greek, Thimios Bakatakis, utilizing various motion-controlled or rigid SteadiCam tracking shots with uniform composition against imposing, almost monolithic set-design. I still don’t care for the choice of music (or lack thereof), jarring sound FX, and purposefully unnatural line-delivery of most of the cast (e.g. Keoghan), but much of the unnerving horror of the story is a function of watching these surrealist events unfold in such a restrained, emotionally sterilized setting.
Wrapping up Lanthimos’ recent career ascension is last year’s period-drama critical favorite, The Favourite. Had I read these three films’ synopses before watching, I would’ve predicted I would like The Favourite the least, and I would’ve been dead wrong. The film details the political and social melodrama of 17th century Great Britain, following the rule of Queen Ann (Olivia Colman) and counselors the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and Baroness Masham (Emma Stone) during the War of Spanish Succession. The seesawing relationships and balance of power between the three women are the dramatic core of the story, while Lathimos diversifies his deliberate, striking closeups and prolonged slow-motion sequences with almost mechanical whip pans and disorientating fish-eye lenses. This mix of unorthodox cinematography with classical melodrama yields surprising if not synergistic results; Lanthimos dials back the dry humor and pushes his almost Kubrickian or Fincherian visuals just enough to bolster this otherwise quaint Oscar-bait into a formidable period-piece. Plus, it’s got Nicholas Hoult in a wig.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ increasing directorial precision coinciding with his rise in popularity is the most “Hollywood thing” about his career, despite his non-traditional cinematic style and obtuse filmographic subject-matter. He neither sold out a la Marc Webb nor was always perfect a la Denis Villeneuve, but stayed true to form while refusing to stagnate. To me, these films represent a clear progression in auteur development; the fact that his latest won me over despite his style being so opposite my cinematic preferences is my biggest compliment to his work. I wouldn’t recommend The Lobster to most non-hipsters, nor do I think The Killing of a Sacred Deer is strong enough to recommend even to most cinephiles, but The Favourite is a critical darling worth watching (see Birdman ), and all three films at least have something to say. This series of films wasn’t easy for me to watch or review, but I’m glad they built to a happy, if weird conclusion.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: I can’t stand most oddball dramas that mainstream critics fellate, but Yorgos Lanthimos has enough cinematic talent and creative vision to silence even me… to an extent. The Lobster is ambitious despite being full of itself, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a baffling if intriguing experience, while The Favourite is both the most cinematic and widely appealing of the bunch. As such…
—> … The Lobster is NOT RECOMMENDED, because in the end, its premise, cinematography, and cast don’t have enough depth for two hours. I’m ON THE FENCE with regards to The Killing of a Sacred Deer and its clash of thriller and theatrical elements. The Favourite, meanwhile, combines the strongest aspects of its predecessors, and comes RECOMMENDED.
? So, when did you tire of being a Hollywood hack celebrity? SWAT (2003), Daredevil (2003), Miami Vice (2006) and Total Recall (2012) weren’t cutting it for you?