2017 | rated R | starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Raffey Cassidy, Alicia Silverstone | directed by Yorgos Lanthimos | 2hrs 1 mins |
Yorgos Lanthimos doesn’t make movies for mainstream consumption. He makes movies for people who are serious about movies. He makes movies to push even those, like myself, who are refreshed and enthused by anything unique, weird or just not a comic book franchise beyond the safety and comfort of a genre formula and make us question if we wanted something this wild. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is his latest imaginative cinematic assault on the art house, coming just one year after what might be his most mainstream, digestible creation (and my favorite film of 2016) The Lobster and bringing star Colin Farrell along again for an even darker slide through a diseased society.
I came to Sacred Deer as a fan of The Lobster but still wasn’t expecting that movie to play so much like a companion piece to this one, with Farrell playing the same character again, perfecting a meek, deadpan persona in a dryly comic language that Lanthimos seemingly made up himself. But The Lobster’s bizarre characters and socially stunted behavior had the veneer of a dystopian movie, which kept us safety behind the viewing glass. Sacred Deer seems to exist in the real world, where characters around Farrell – even his wife (Nicole Kidman) – seem emotionally functional. Relatively. Which makes everything they do, or more accurately don’t do, all the more frustrating as the stakes escalate.
Farrell plays Dr. Steven Murphy, a heart surgeon who befriends the teenage son of a patient who died on the operating table, increasingly unstable Martin (Barry Keoghan). When he invites Martin further into his life to meet his wife (Kidman), son Bob (Sunny Suljic) and daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy, Tomorrowland), the family starts to one-by-one suffer from a mystery illness that causes paralysis in the legs and eventual death unless Murphy capitulates to Martin’s impossible demands. The performances here are all around some of the year’s best with Keoghan standing out as the enigmatic villain, Cassidy cruel and cold and Suljic as the youngest son who heart-breakingly tries to bargain with choirs to get his dad to save his life.
The film has an engrossing visual style, working out some classic movie techniques that feel a little bit Stanley Kubrick and a little bit Michael Haneke. Lots of wide shots and Kubrickian tracking walks down long hallways and it has the rawness and smirking smart-ass attitude of Funny Games. It’s unique score is genuinely nerve-shredding. It is so effective as a horror film that the weirder impulses Lanthimos can’t help himself from feel like they cut through the film’s tone instead of elevating it as it did in The Lobster. Ultimately, Lanthimos ends up squarely in territory of the world’s most pitch-black awkward comedy, but to what satirical end? Weirdness for the sake of weirdness. Its definitely a compelling, challenging and, yes, entertaining and shamefully funny watch, but I don’t know if it’s 100% effective.
It goes so far into the horror/thriller realm that it sets up a ticking clock of sorts that Murphy and his colleagues have to race to keep his kids alive. Farrell and Kidman trade emotional points where they at times are frantically desperate to put a stop to it and other times so blasé and detached in this cruel world they would rather just get a good night’s sleep or role play in Murphy’s anesthetic sex fantasy. As for the mechanics of the illness itself and how Martin seems to dispense it, the movie is pure metaphor there offering the audience no tangible explanation. A genre movie would have Farrell kick in the kid’s door, punch his lights out and recover the “antidote”, but Lanthimos has higher intentions for Sacred Deer. He traps the Murphy’s and audience in a surreal nightmare (a smidge like the nightmare logic behind this year’s Mother!). I was left cold by the movie, but also in an internal debate, where my desire to see something new and weird and fresh fought with my desire to see a story with clear villains, innocents, manipulations and revenge brought to a satisfying conclusion. The movie itself might be fighting for an identity.
None of this is really criticism, more of a table setting for what to expect here. Lanthimos’ characters are inconsistent in their moods, motivations and concerns and that’s exactly how he’s designed it. Had I not seen Lanthimos utilize his dry, absurd humor so flawlessly to satirize in The Lobster I might feel very differently about this one. It’s a masterfully made stress chamber of a movie, fascinating, hypnotic and horrifying in the right beats. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a movie that should be seen and debated and mulled over. I didn’t connect with it as much as I expected, I think in this particular effort his conflicting tones, pull the movie flat in parts, but I’m sure I’ll see it again and again pouring through it’s numerous wonderful idiosyncrasies.
The film is defiantly allergic to cliché, zagging around the tiniest hint of familiarity. As it starts to embrace full horror territory, it slips out a sly dry awkward bit of comedy. The sheer inappropriate dichotomy of it, given how bleak this gets, is wonderfully fearless and I love it. Lanthimos dares to put us in the most harrowing life-and-death situation and pokes us to laugh cruelly at the way it’s characters fumble around awkwardly handling impossible choices. It anticipates a world that lacks empathy and holds the mirror up to it.