Yorgos Lanthimos has a thing about identity. From his experimental underground beginnings to the Oscar-nominated The Favourite, it’s the defining theme of his work — less conspicuous, maybe, than the fish-eye cinematography and deadpan line readings characteristic of his films, but no less quintessential a hallmark.
In Kinetta and Alps, Lanthimos explores the relationship between actor and role to ask how much of who we are can be reduced to rote performance, while breakthroughs like Dogtooth and The Lobster probe the repressive flattening of identity (and the resistance it inspires) in authoritarian societies. In The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Favourite, too, there’s a dystopian edge to the subject, as the quest for an identity is reduced to a series of cold transactions, with characters jostling for relevancy using passionless handjobs and household chores as bargaining chips.
Nimic, Lanthimos’ latest short film, stretches its director’s favorite theme — and the absurdism that colors all of his work — to its abstract extremes. Matt Dillon, the star of several recent boundary-pushing auteurist movies, continues that foray into the avant-garde with a lead role as a professional cellist whose wife, children, and career are stolen from him by an impersonator. But rather than make use of prosthetics, lookalikes, or visual effects to create Dillon’s usurper, Lanthimos opts for the most psychologically jarring approach, casting the wholly dissimilar Daphne Patakia instead.
It’s a decidedly eccentric casting choice, but one that’s wholly in keeping with Lanthimos’ steadily widening estrangement from rationality. Where the surreality of early works like Dogtooth and Alps was always offset by a rational explanation — we can accept that the imprisoned children in the former movie think a shotgun is “a beautiful white bird,” for example, because we’re explicitly shown that that’s what their dictatorial father teaches them to think — Lanthimos’ more recent films have grown audaciously, unapologetically enigmatic in their logic. Disregarding The Favourite (which is tied down to historical fact), he has increasingly embraced the surreality at the heart of his movies, relocating his narratives from the realm of the reasonable to inscrutable universes in which teenage boys have the power to cast karmic curses and governments can turn humans into animals at their whim.
If you’ve seen The Lobster or The Killing of a Sacred Deer, then, the idea that someone who looks like Daphne Patakia could successfully pose as someone who looks like Matt Dillon — despite the glaring evidence indicating otherwise — isn’t too big a pill to swallow. As with those films, the “how” in Nimic is immaterial; the movie has all the logistical haze of an ancient myth.
Just as in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, those murky mechanics have a tonal purpose: they heighten the horror. When Dillon’s character (“Father”) first meets the mimic, he asks her for the time from across a subway car, and, during an uneasily long pause, she seems to light up, as if the question has triggered for the first time some ancient code written deep within her. She answers, but it’s only to obliviously echo his words back at him: “Excuse me… do you have the time?”
Suddenly, all the usual anonymity of public transport is terrifyingly dissipated, with Patakia’s mimic wordlessly absorbing and then duplicating all the facts of Father’s life as she follows him home (right down to materialising an identical copy of his house key in her coat pocket). Almost instantaneously, the mimic’s unblinking, dilated eyes and mechanical smile go from innocuously blank to bristling with malevolence.
Lanthimos uses all of the tools at his disposal to amp up the disorientation. Cinematographer Diego García’s camera takes a complicit role in Nimic‘s gaslighting assault on reality, shooting duplicate frames of the original and the copy as they try to convince Dillon’s character’s wife and kids that they are the real Father. Similarly discordant is the score, made up of existing music by Lanthimos favorites Benjamin Britten and pioneering experimental composer Luc Ferrari, who, like the director, tinkers with mundane elements to produce an unsettling, otherworldly effect in his work. Echoing Nimic’s sparse dialogue, Ferrari’s music is full of ellipses, and each musical pause heightens the eeriness as much as its rumbles and zings do.
Nimic isn’t one-note, however. It embraces the latent physical humor in its absurd central conceit, as in a scene where the musically untrained mimic’s screechy cello-playing is met with sincerely rapturous applause at a concert. In the vein of Lanthimos’ characters elsewhere, Dillon is largely sedate, but Patakia bubbles with the unpredictability of a comic. Like the film’s title, there’s something wryly off-kilter about her, as if she’s a creature who’s just landed on Earth and is trying their best to remember what their interplanetary travel guide said about “local etiquette.”
Her casting is both a farce and a provocation — it’s Lanthimos wielding absurdity and then subverting it to interrogate his favorite theme again. Nimic uses its eleven-minute runtime to weave modern anxieties about identity theft with the timeless, lurking suspicion that we’re all expendable. The latter point recalls prior works, and in that sense, the short feels like a soupy reduction of the obsessions and idiosyncrasies that have defined Lanthimos’ career so far. It bleakly develops Kinetta and Alps’ driving question, while also uniting The Lobster’s coldly transactional view of relationships with Dogtooth’s view of the family as the most devastating site for dystopia. As it does in The Lobster, The Favourite, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, an ominous aura shrouds the film, just as Nimic also explores insecurities about personal inadequacy through the shared Lanthimosian motif of life-threatening ultimatums.
Nimic still feels like an artistic evolution for Lanthimos, though, largely because he has continued to loosen the reins on his actors (flexibility first trialed in The Favourite), allowing them greater expressive freedom than was allowed by the restrictive monotone of previous films. In eliminating some of the dissonances between real-world human behavior and that of his movies, Lanthimos opens up a new facet in his work, which he uses here to suffuse the film with a more immediate sense of horror. While we can bet that future movies will continue his mind-bending journey of grappling with identity, the increased flexibility and daring on display in Nimic indicates an excitingly unpredictable future ahead for its director.