Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Stars: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan
“It was very Lynchian,” I overheard a gentleman tell his wife upon leaving the screening of The Killing Of A Sacred Deer that I attended, as the varied audience tried to get a handle on what they’d just been through. Now, everyone is most certainly entitled to their opinion, and the better angels of my nature stopped me from quizzing the man on his summation, but let’s be clear, there is really nothing Lynchian about the latest film from Yorgos Lanthimos, though other comparisons do hold water.
I can sympathise with the struggle to place this experience in a box, though. Lanthimos’ reputation and prowess afford him the opportunity to work with A-listers. This is the second go-round for him and Colin Farrell, and now Nicole Kidman’s in the mix as well (the two shared the screen a few short months ago in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled). Even Alicia Silverstone, poster child of the 90’s teen movie gets a scene here. The suggestion, therefore, is something with a level of safety. But that assumption conveniently forgets what courageous actors these are. In keeping with his last, The Lobster, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer arrives in UK cinemas like a double agent; it has the star billing to suggest mainstream familiarity but this is largely a rouse. Don’t count on seeing Lanthimos’ Marvel or Star Wars movie anytime soon.
Farrell, sporting a bird’s nest of a beard, plays surgeon Steven. He is comfortably well-off, married to optometry specialist Anna (Kidman) and they have two children, Bob (Sunny Siljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy). They live together in a very nice house. Things are, generally, very good. Steven has an intriguing secret, however. Every now and then he meets with a teenage boy from outside of the family, a somewhat awkward lad named Martin (Barry Keoghan). He buys Martin expensive gifts. They go for coffee, or walk by the river. The intimation isn’t sexual (I see where you’re going), but rather that, perhaps, Martin is a son that the rest of the family don’t know about. A bastard child, perhaps.
But this is not the case. Lanthimos drip-feeds us information very deliberately, until suddenly we’re in a very unsettling position. Martin is introduced to the family, and they warm to him greatly. It’s only when things become a little too familiar for Steven that the film tips and makes a startling reveal. Suddenly a dreaded clock is ticking over the prosperous household and Steven has the weight of the world on his shoulders. His children start losing their ability to walk, and only Martin has the answer, delivering a fast-paced ultimatum that turns the screws on everyone, audience included. The Killing Of A Sacred Deer makes good on the unease and intangible dread ushered in from its opening shot. A ruthless revenge saga unfolds and there are tough decisions ahead.
If I’m coy with specifics its only because the discovery of these things is a mirthless joy all of its own. Lanthimos and his co-screenwriter Efthymis Filippou tap a vein of deeply dark humour that has served them well previously. And it is this uncomfortably funny stamp that marks the work most soundly as theirs. Otherwise, as mentioned at the top there, more prominent influences abound. The most recurrent of which is Kubrick.
Kubrick is everywhere in this film. From the way Lanthimos has his camera wander dreamily after people down those tight hospital corridors to the very casting of Nicole Kidman as a surgeon’s wife. Most thoroughly it is The Shining that is paid homage to. The music selection has the same thrumming modern classical flavour and the eventual display of a family turning on one another is right on target. Hell, Bob’s hair is seemingly purposefully reminiscent of little Danny Lloyd’s and for the eagle-eyed there’s even a painting of a maze in the foyer of Steven’s ward of the hospital.
What’s more there’s a level of cynicism toward human behaviour about The Killing Of A Sacred Deer that is wholly Kubrickian. The film takes a very dim view on our reactions to unusual stressors, on how we proportion blame, on the very concept of an eye-for-an-eye as a method of justice. What may prove the biggest sticking point for some viewers is exactly how Martin orchestrates the situation that unfolds. But to ask that is to miss the point entirely. Was The Lobster ruined because you didn’t know how the hotel management turned people into animals? The how isn’t nearly as interesting as the effect it has on the dynamics within the film. As such, the other apt influence appears to be Buñuel, who applied similarly surreal challenges on his characters in films like The Exterminating Angel or The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie.
But while the film is pregnant with progenitors, the end result wholly and confidently belongs to Lanthimos. With his now trademark fancy for deadpan dialogue exchanges and absurd acts of self-abasement, his humour has rarely been so consistently grim. The film is hysterical, in hindsight, but the experience is wound so tight that a lot of these laughs will be too traumatic on first approach. A man forlornly trying to decide which of his children is better by asking their principal is absurd but not the source of howling laughter, and few will likely walk out of The Killing Of A Sacred Deer feeling as though they’ve seen the comedy of the year. But it is a funny film. It’s just a humour that is thoroughly entrenched in the morbid and tragic.
Farrell is perhaps even better here than he was in The Lobster, Kidman shows the kind of brass she’s made a career out of, while young Barry Keoghan is a beguiling menace. He’d have fitted in just perfectly in either of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games films. The absurd nature of The Killing Of A Sacred Deer is its saving grace come the inevitable downward spiral; the climax defies expectation, but in this world, who honestly knows what to expect? Once all is done and dusted, the cycle of vengeance and violence is revealed to have decimated all. The film’s final scene is wordless, merely an exchange of looks between all parties concerned, the amount of regard in each instance telling of the mindset behind it. And it is here that Lanthimos reminds us of the most surreal thing in life; love is absolutely without rationale.