Directed By: Yorgos Lanthimos
Written By: Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic
If one is unsure if the latest from the macabre, unworldly, swirling blackhole that is the imagination of Yorgos Lanthimos is for them, they’ll know for certain within a single frame. The Killing of a Sacred Deer opens with a lingering shot of a still beating human heart amidst surgery, Lanthimos hovering his camera over the sight long enough for its most minute features to set up permanent residence in our minds. It’s a thoroughly crude ingratiation into the world of Lanthimos, and a distinctly Lanthimos thing to do—viewer baptism by fire, presenting our eyes with a most jarring, arrestingly grotesque visual; as unflinching and matter-of-fact in its delivery as a schoolteacher is in taking attendance.
Immediately afterwards, we are treated to more Lanthimos hallmarks. The doctor who has just performed that surgery, Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell), walks alongside his colleague, the two discussing each other’s watches and their respective preference for leather or metal wrist straps. It’s an uncannily rigid conversation, the words spoken with a mechanical, unfeeling precision befitting of the topic at hand. Perhaps on paper the words would appear acceptable by typical social standards, but in their off-kilter, something’s-not-quite-right register, they adopt an almost alien quality. Watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer, it often feels as though we’ve stepped into a parallel universe in which everybody has been half-lobotomised.
The accumulative effect of these scenes is oddly comedic in its overtly stilted, impossibly deadpan, unnatural demeanour, and oddly perturbing for those same reasons. Such is the power of Lanthimos, a filmmaker distinct in his ability to be riotous and unnerving in the same breath—both by means entirely his own. Consider the scene where Stephen fruitlessly attempts to jam a donut down his son’s throat. Upon failing, Stephen demands of his son that when he return the whole box of donuts be gone, like a parent who forces their child to smoke an entire packet of cigarettes when they’ve been caught in the act smoking one. Or consider when Stephen suspects that that same child is putting on an act in the hope of garnering attention, and threatens him with shaving his head and force-feeding him his own hair. There’s something disquieting about these scenes, sad even—a desperate father, scared, at the end of his rope, and willing to say or do anything. There is also something irrepressibly comical about the absurdity of it all. That those two juxtaposing affects never undermine each other is something of a miracle. That in fact they enhance one another, is the calling card of an auteur who has successfully demarcated himself from the pack.
There are traces of outside directorial influence in Lanthimos’s work—Stanley Kubrick with that prowling, sweeping camera work; David Lynch with that fearless, “screw-you” fusion of the surreal and seemingly natural—but a Yorgos Lanthimos movie is ultimately its own, gloriously deformed beast; in that irreverent originality, there is a great cinematic thrill.
That originality leads Lanthimos down the alley of icy psychological horror this time around, a genre engaged in previous works, but never pursued as centrally as it is here. The story of The Killing of a Sacred Deer sees a Greek myth transposed into contemporary American suburbia, where a materially perfect family— consisting of Stephen; his beautiful, sexually complaint ophthalmologist wife Anna (played by Nicole Kidman; Anna and Stephen partake in ritualised love making in which Anna plays the role of an anaesthetised body); and their two well-to-do children, 15-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and 12-year-old Bob (Sunny Suljic)— find themselves at the mercy of a mystical, life threatening force.
Exact details of the plot aren’t to be revealed here, discovering them for oneself, jaw agape and mind bewildered, is one of the film’s key allures— in a joy too often deprived of movie-goers, the things that transpire in Sacred Deer are totally unforeseeable. What’s apparent is that this mystical force somehow traces back to Martin (Barry Keoghan), a 16-year-old boy whom Stephen is apparently obliged, treating him to gifts and frequent rendezvouses in which the two walk along the waterfront and meet in a diner.
Ostensibly, Martin is a charming young man, as stilted and stoic as any other character in Lanthimos world, yet bearing no malice in his demeanour. But as the film’s discordant, string-heavy score attests long before Lanthimos’ and co-writer Efthymis Filippou’s screenplay, Martin is the classic wolf in sheep’s clothing, weaving his way into the Murphys’ good graces before growing, almost imperceptibly, vicious. Soon Martin’s requests for Stephen’s company transfigure into demands, his gormless expressions morphing from comedic to chilling, ushering with his change in person a transition from abyss-black humour to increasingly surreal revenge saga, one which burrows under the skin and into the pit of the stomach with parasitic efficiency.
“Revenge saga” hardly screams unique, but as per Ebert’s law, a film isn’t about what it’s about, but rather it’s about how it’s about it. And Lanthimos’ approach to revenge is so arch; so bold in its unwavering stoicism; in its pummelling, classical soundtrack; in its spattering of jet-black comedy; in its ability to ride mundane topics of conversation, such as preference of watch strap, into alarming, uncanny exchanges; that the film ultimately achieves a kind of enigmatic menace. It makes for a singularly unmooring viewing experience.
The performances are to be thanked in large part. Where many might have slipped into banality operating along such deliberately robotic lines, Farrell, Kidman and Keoghan remain compulsively watchable. Keoghan is startling in his ability to wring dread from such an innocent, youthful veneer, while Ms. Kidman deftly concocts maternal warmth and quiet despair. It is Lanthimos alumni Farrell who lays at the centre of the film however, evoking his performance in The Lobster with his repeated mastery of blank-faced humour underpinned with the faint air of tragedy.
What Sacred Deer preserves from Lanthimos’s previous work in Farrell however, it fails to recreate in levity. While The Lobster offset its tragedy with a heftier dose of humour and bouts of genuine romance, Sacred Deer doubles down on the austere and idiosyncratic, an exercise so devoid of recognisable humanity that it becomes as cold as it is fascinating.
The question then, is if that fascination is worth such a deliberately alienating eventuality. I believe it is. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is so unique, so unlike anything else, that it’s worth seeing simply for the ambition. That the film is utterly hypnotic and impossible to take one’s eye off along the way, is a bonus.