The harshest criticism lobbed at Yorgos Lanthimos’ motion pictures is that they don’t make sense – a critique that is both cutting and simultaneously true. Lanthimos isn’t so much interested in narrative straightforwardness as he is in capturing an emotional concept. Dogtooth (’09) is all about isolationism, where a family teaches their children to only believe in the complex mythology they lay out before them. Alps (’11) finds despondently grieving characters hiring actors to impersonate dead loved ones. The Lobster (’15) is centered on an institution where, if an individual doesn’t discover a mate within forty-five days, they transform into an animal of their choosing. In turn, these ideas come to represent emotional elements - respectively fear, sadness and loneliness, all while showcasing their dramatic conceits in increasingly silly ways.
Keeping that unifying theory in mind, Lanthimos’ latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, sees an emotionally distant heart surgeon (Colin Farrell) fostering an oddly close relationship with a strange boy (Barry Keoghan). He invites the kid over to his large family home to meet his wife (Nicole Kidman) and children (Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic). The child reciprocates the favor, and his recently widowed mother (Alicia Silverstone) cooks them dinner. While these proceedings seem cordial on the surface, the surgeon’s extravagant gifts (such as an expensive watch), and the boy’s increasing clinginess lend the movie an air of increasing dread. One even wonders if the two have begun a clandestine romance, putting up a steadily crumbling façade of normalcy for the world while they deal with their complex feelings for one another. All the while, ominous strings screech on the soundtrack, letting us know that everything is not OK for these Cincinnati residents.
Turns out, the sensation Lanthimos seeks to explore through these interactions is guilt, as the boy blames the surgeon for his father dying on the operating room table, and places a curse on his family. One by one, the clan will be paralyzed from the waist down, lose their appetites, bleed from the eyes, and then expire. In order to make it stop, the patriarch must choose a family member and execute them himself – an Old World blood-for-blood approach to justice right out of a tragedy written in Lanthimos’ Greek homeland. How this jinx exists and is able to be wielded by a middle-class white kid from Ohio is never explained. But that’s not important. What’s important is that the surgeon acknowledges his sins and offers up one of his own as sacrifice for the pain he caused those he was supposed to heal. Again, it doesn’t make a lick of logical sense in terms of the setting in which Killing of a Sacred Deer takes place, but Lanthimos’ picture is a precise piece of frightening genre filmmaking that is totally fine playing by its singular auteur’s narrative playbook.
Equally unique is the way Lanthimos directs actors, and Killing of a Sacred Deer owns the same stilted affectation that defined his performers’ turns in previous works. Only, where The Lobster utilized awkward line deliveries to emphasize the comedy of several hapless singles racing against the clock to discover a match, Killing of a Sacred Deer’s heightened, formal acting creates a discordant disconnect from the realistic setting. Now, these characters are nothing more than moral avatars, wrestling with questions of disease and death. The most unsettling element of Sacred Deer is probably the way all of the environments are familiar, but we can hardly penetrate these cold characters’ existences.
Stranger still are the bodily functions that stand in for small talk amongst these tragic dolls, as they compare body hair growth, menstruation, and share secrets regarding jerking off their parents in the middle of the night. It’s as if Lanthimos has put us in the shoes of aliens, looking down on hapless beings that look like us, but do not sound or relate to one another in any way we actually recognize. The whole thing adds up to another tableau that’s beautifully off-kilter, escalating toward an inevitably grim finale that we know is going to turn our stomachs more than a little bit. There’s absurdity in the tragedy, and vice versa; nervous giggling generated during moments where we just want to cry out due to the tension being so palpable.
Farrell – who reunites with Lanthimos after the two enjoyed critical success on The Lobster – is excellent again in Sacred Deer, sporting a big bushy beard on his intimidating visage of normalcy. The relationship he shares with Kidman is almost believable in its cold formality, until the two disappear into the bedroom, and his wife drapes herself across the sheets like a conked cold patient under anesthesia. Kidman is returning to the icy matriarchal mold she minted effortlessly in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (’99), only this update on Alice Hartford can barely tolerate her husband’s bullshit, and immediately begins to investigate once their children fall ill. She knows her spouse has something to do with the ailment that’s fallen over their home, and if that means giving his trusted anesthesiologist (Bill Camp) a handjob in order for him to breach doctor/patient confidentiality, she isn’t above performing the simple sexual gesture. Watching Farrell and Kidman rigidly dance around one another in Lanthimos’ wide frame is hypnotic, as both fully commit to this robotic tango of ethical incredulousness.
Speaking of Kubrick, it’s difficult not to draw the comparisons between Lanthimos and the late master, at least in a purely visual sense. Much of Sacred Deer is captured in wide, roaming angles, often tilted toward the ceiling or sky. Hospital hallways become endless, and the doctor’s home resembles an ornamental suburban tomb, each wall decorated so that not a single picture frame is out of place. Compositions will often be centered, as a slow zoom or pullback reveals the scene, little by little. The precision at play is stunning, as there is a distinct sense of control over every scenario, marking this as the auteur’s tightest work.
Like the rest of Lanthimos’ filmography, The Killing of a Sacred Deer will likely prove divisive, as he’s certainly testing the audience’s patience with his deliberate pacing, making you feel the same inescapable sense of horror its doomed subjects are suffering through. There’s also a complete lack of hope that The Lobster offered, as the good doctor is certainly sitting and awaiting judgment, and Keoghan’s vengeful angel is the arbiter who gets to decide if he’s properly paid his penance. By the time the tables are turned and the kid’s strapped to a chair, being beaten to a bloody pulp while Farrell screams about wanting to protect his brood, it’s never really clear who the hell (if anyone) is going to emerge victorious. Yet this frustratingly oblique approach to tragedy seems to be the point, as Lanthimos is letting us see what happens when all reason is tossed out the window, leaving nothing but absurdly ferocious emotion in its place.