It's difficult, as a satirist, to hide your hand. Satire is inherently political, and the satirist must have an agenda, a reason for setting his sights on a topical issue. Even those who are crass and mischievous argue for a world in which crassness and mischief are socially acceptable. South Park's Matt Stone and Trey Parker, for example, present political correctness as fundamentally dishonest, a shield for the vain and self-righteous.

The Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos is a different kind of satirist. You sense he has an agenda, but he obscures it--he shifts too much to make his intentions clear. His 2009 film, Dogtooth, about a husband and wife who keep their children confined within their family compound, takes aim at institutional ignorance. But often, it's the father, who coordinates his family's charade, who seems to be the most miserable. Maybe ignorance is bliss.

His 2011 film, Alps, centered on a group of actors who start a business in which they impersonate the recently deceased for grieving clients. Do the actors' good intentions outweigh the psychological damage they run the risk of inflicting on their clients? What about the identity crisis one could face by pretending to be other people? Lanthimos never quite answers these questions; he turns them over, lets them linger.

His most recent film, The Lobster, spends most of its time on or near a hotel for single men and women. On its surface, the hotel resembles a luxury resort--volleyball and tennis courts, a golf course and glimmering pool--but it comes with a price. Guests have 45 days to find a romantic partner, or they are turned into animals of their choosing. The film's title is the central character David's (Colin Farrell) choice if he fails to find a mate. ("Because lobsters live for over 100 years, are blue-blooded--like aristocrats--and stay fertile all their lives," he explains.)

Each guest is defined by a single trait--frequent nosebleeds, short-sightedness, a limp--and must find a partner who shares that trait. This rubric for romantic compatibility extends beyond the resort, as the only question David asks when his wife divorces him is if her new partner wears glasses or contact lenses. (Both David and her new partner wear glasses.)

Lanthimos is difficult to pin down because he's more interested in those absurd details than answering the philosophical questions he poses. His films are fixed systems where he can indulge outlandish hypotheticals. Rather than build tension, the film exists in a haze, letting the air thicken with the trappings of manufactured luxury and freedom. When the film moves beyond the resort, characters are swallowed by trees and moss. You feel it must be difficult to breathe.

This becomes evident when David escapes into the woods surrounding the resort. He eventually comes upon a group of runaways who refer to themselves as "loners." They do not offer liberation so much as confinement of a different sort. Loners caught flirting or kissing other members of the group have their lips slashed. Those who become injured are encouraged to dig their own graves and bury themselves alive. ("Over your face too," the group's leader suggests, "You wouldn't want your face to get eaten by dogs, would you?")

This becomes a problem for David, who flees the resort looking not to protest romantic coupling, but to free himself from severe punishment. He falls for another loner (Rachel Weisz)--listed in the credits only as "Short Sighted Woman"--and they take pains to keep their affair secret, devising a complex system of hand signals to share their affection.

Lanthimos is fascinated by communication, particularly language and tone. Often, watching one of his films feels like observing a different species. The basic structures of conversation are intact, but the characters speak in clipped phrases in monotones, as if every exchange serves an identical purpose. Suicide threats are discussed and received in the same tone as comments about the weather. Characters are obsessed by facts and figures; at one point, a newly-formed family sits for dinner as the father recites the exact weights of regulation basketballs and volleyballs. His wife and daughter are transfixed, as if this passes for true familial intimacy.

Maintaining this peculiar tone requires discipline and unity from his actors. This is Lanthimos' first experience with Hollywood stars, but he does not allow them to indulge their charisma. Even Farrell, with his piercing stare and breathless charm, is subdued. He slouches, speaks softly, keeps his face set at neutral--with hints of fear around the eyes. He gained over 40 pounds for the role, but it is not a swaggering weight, the kind that studios use to launch Oscar campaigns. It hangs off of him, pulls him downward.

As the film drifts toward its end, Lanthimos makes you think he's settled in. But he pokes and prods at your assumptions, opening holes you thought he'd closed. In the final scene, as a character prepares to make a gruesome sacrifice for another, you think, here, Lanthimos will finally take a stand. But he cuts away early. The ambiguous ending is not a spark for discussion but a statement of intent: the details don't need to add up; it's more fun when they scatter.