Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Halloween List: The Lobster and The Killing of the Sacred Deer

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Finally I’ve gotten around to seeing the works of Yorgos Lanthimos! I’ve heard about the Greek director for what feels like a decade, but never got my hands on his movies. Today we’re taking in a double feature of his two most recent works from A24: The Lobster and The Killing of the Sacred Deer. They manage to feel strongly like they have to be A24 movies, while also not being quite comparable to any other A24 movies. My biggest takeaway was a need to see a third Lanthimos movie just to get a grasp on his style.

The Lobster (2015)

In the midst of a dystopia, people who don’t love anyone are shipped in droves to hotel-like centers for re-education. They are given 45 days to fall in love or else they will become animals. For more than half the movie we don’t know what the outside world is like, and wonder if the entire planet is a series of dystopic hotels like this, split up by farms of former humans.

It’s a while before we learn if the transformation is a disease, magic curse, or government program. The movie casually explains a few rules, then rolls on and lets you figure it out for the next two acts, learning about the lives of these people at the same pace they do. It’s demanding, and thanks to being so unflinchingly weird, it works. You can’t look away. You have to figure out why these people are submitting to the dehumanizing and torturous behaviors of the staff, and why they all seem almost apathetic toward everyone around them. They should be terrified. As it is, they barely seem to recognize what’s coming.

Also there’s a cute dog. It turns out it’s our protagonist’s brother, who turned into an animal a few years ago. He lives with the protagonist as a constant reminder of what’s waiting for him.

The Lobster is either the most pro-aromantic movie or the most anti-aromantic movie I’ve ever seen. It might be both. These people clearly have their lives threatened if they don’t fall in with society’s romantic norms. They’re victims of a cruel culture. But everything they go through attempts to valorize settling, and once we meet the anti-romantic rebels, we get some dorky “both sides” to the conflict, with the runaways having some of the cruelest villains. Did this movie need a Magneto?

It’s easy to interpret this as great or offensive. A week later, I can’t make up my mind.

Part of the difficulty in reading the movie’s values is that the characters are excruciatingly awkward. It’s as though everyone has forgotten how to talk to people. They don’t respond expressions or tones; but if you think these are abled actors badly mimicking people with autism, there’s a fist fight at one point that makes it seem like they’ve even forgotten how to punch.

Something acute is going on here. Your instinct is to blame the same thing that’s turning people into animals. This antisocial behavior could also be the extreme marks of people who’ve had traumatic loss and can’t recover. But it never goes anywhere, is never explained, and the staff of the hotel seem equally as strange. This is just how people in this world are.

Having seen another of this director’s films, I now think it also has to do with directorial style. Lanthimos seems to relish in people being in awkward situations and responding blankly to big events. Without spoiling it, halfway into The Lobster one lady keeps peacefully having her tea ten yards away from the most gruesome thing anybody could witness.

People have argued if this movie is a Comedy, and I confess I laughed frequently. It’s messed up without making awkward people the butt of the joke. Usually in visual media when characters are this awkward, they’re skewered and we get secondhand embarrassment. Here the characters feel no first-hand embarrassment, inviting us sometimes into morbid voyeurism, and just as often, to laugh at how preposterous drama is if the characters don’t sweat it.

Honestly, I can’t say I like it. I also can’t say dislike it. Movies like this function without traditional entertainment or failure modes. They’re so morbidly interesting that they have obvious value, and that value isn’t interchangeable or comparable with a random haunted house movie. That feeling is only stronger in Lanthimos’s next movie.

The Killing of the Sacred Deer (2017)

This movie settled much easier with me than The Lobster, because while the characters are just as awkward and morbid, the premise is simpler. A family is struck by a curse: the father has to choose one member of his family to die, or all of them will die to an otherwise inexplicable illness. The rest of the film’s weirdness lies in how the intense weirdos of this family handle being stricken by what seems like a supernatural presence. By focusing all of the weirdness onto personalities and how they express themselves, it’s even harder to look away from than The Lobster.

Even how the curse comes upon them is intriguing. Dr. Murphy, the husband and father, is also a surgeon who loses a patient to a peculiar heart condition. This leaves the patient’s son, Martin, without a father. Dr. Murphy reaches out to Martin trying to give him the paternal companionship and guidance that he’d lost. Martin gets obsessed with having Dr. Murphy to himself, and when he realizes he can’t steal him from his family, he decides to make them even.

How will he make them even?

Right! That curse.

Since Dr. Murphy took a member of his family, he now has to choose one of his own. His son, daughter, and wife will each slowly become paralyzed, lose interest in food, and then bleed from the eyes before dying – unless Dr. Murphy kills one of them. Martin says Dr. Murphy can’t kill himself to end the curse; that won’t be enough.

As the family struggles to force-feed one child, or get spinal taps on another, Martin is out there, watching them, looking for ways in. When their daughter needs to come to the hospital and Martin winds up being the one to drive her there, oh, you know the relationships in this movie are only going to get hairier.

All of this is far more compelling because of Lanthimos’s preposterous direction. Nobody is capable of a typical conversation; they change topics randomly, read nothing in eye contact, and constantly bring up inappropriate subjects. You don’t small talk about your daughter’s period over champagne at a gala. You don’t ask to see somebody’s chest hair so you can compare it with your dad’s. His behavior could have made Martin seem like an evil outsider, but the entire family he’s targeting is just as weird. It ratchets the tension when they start prying through possible medical causes and tests, and bargaining with each other over who should be the one. There’s intense repression here, with people hiding behind the masks of upper class formality until those masks are killing them.

It’s a bit of a relief, too, that this movie confirms that Lanthimos wasn’t summoning caricatures of people on the spectrum in The Lobster. The direction suggests these characters grow straight out of Lanthimos’s worldview. Their personalities are the norm in his worlds, with subtle variations between them that I won’t spoil.

There’s a fine art to making stories where the primary appeal is yelling, “No! That is messed up! NO WAY!”

I owe these movies two days of that sort of fascination. I’m still mulling over whether they succeeded as Horror without having much suspense or dread in them. Literary Horror prose has a rich modern history of going for the morbid over the suspenseful, but A24 in particular seems to be trying to popularize movies doing this. It Comes at Night and Hereditary were similarly far more interested in sharing something vulnerable than instilling fear.

Coming Friday: The Evil Eye, What Have You Done to Solange?, and The Tragedy Girls

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a car wreck you can't turn away from. If i do attempt either film, I'll be prepared for unsettling weirdness.


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