'The Killing of a Sacred Deer'
Darkly comedic Greek provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos has slowly been carving a place for himself in the international filmmaking community with such twisted treats as ‘Dogtooth’ and ‘The Lobster’. The director is a pop surrealist in the David Lynch mold, who uses art house filmmaking tempo and language to entertain through dread, anguish, and the darkest of humor. Some of his work contains deep meaning, others are merely sensational storytelling at a measured and thoughtful pace. His latest, ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’, is likely the closest the director will ever come to delivering a horror film.
A bellied and bearded Colin Farrell stars as Steven Murphy, a successful doctor with a cold but caring wife (Nicole Kidman) and a pair of children (Sunny Suljic and Raffey Cassidy). The movie opens with a shot of a beating heart mid-surgery in a very sterile and unfeeling way. It then follows Murphy through his work, family, and sex life in a similar manner. A deadpan absurdist streak of humor runs through it as in all of Lanthimos’ work, but for the most part the overall feeling is that something is deeply wrong. That tips over when Murphy starts meeting for mysterious lunches with a teen boy (Barry Keoghan, who is deeply, deeply creepy here). They seem innocuous at first. Then it becomes clear that Murphy accidentally killed the boy’s father in surgery years ago and he’s stepped in as a sort of father figure. Then we discover that the boy is essentially blackmailing the doctor into this situation. When the doc finally tries to break away from the weird kid, a curse is unleashed too good and unexpected to spoil, even if the tone of the movie doesn’t seem particularly magical until that point and no cause or reason for all the heartache and madness is ever revealed.
Lanthimos’ movies have always carried a certain sense of dread and creep factor, but for his first American project (at least in terms of location and language), the filmmaker pushes that element further than ever before. Even the smallest scenes have a disquieting calm, long before suspenseful horrors appear. The director shoots in long lingering shots with off-kilter angles that keep everything feeling uncomfortable. The music and sound design are rooted in unsettling dissonance. The movie is a slow-burn pressure cooker of tension, and even when the filmmaker’s trademark humor pops up (and it does rather frequently), it’s so morbid and deadpan that it offers little relief. This is Lanthimos going for his audiences’ gut and wringing them for as much shifting discomfort and fear as possible.
As always, the performances are just slightly removed from reality. The dialogue is oddly formal and stilted, unfolding in an awkward rhythm that feels right, as if aliens who barely understood the concept of language were attempting to use English. Everyone feels disconnected and uncomfortable, and while the likes of Farrell and Kidman don’t often raise their emotional level above Lanthimos’ slow beat, they have pain in their eyes and subtle movements that say enough.
Despite playing with movie stars, Barry Keoghan (who also landed a big role in ‘Dunkirk’ earlier this year) steals the show. Speaking in a constant whine and seeming to be filled with energy that he can’t quite release, Keoghan is an imposing and frightening figure throughout, in ways that aren’t conventionally unsettling, even in creepy kid terms. Like everything else in the film, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what Keoghan does that registers so deeply, except to say that it works almost inexplicably and the young actor chills to the bone.
As to what ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ means and why Lanthimos chose to make it, that’s just as hard to guess. While his last film, ‘The Lobster’, was a pretty clear satire of dating and the desire for human connection, this follow-up doesn’t seem as thematically precise or focused. Perhaps that’s the point. The film is as viscerally unsettling and frightening as most conventional horror movies. Reality suddenly bends in inexplicable ways and the most horrible of choices and tragedies follow in an inescapable slow burn where all sense of reason and rationality washes away. You don’t need to know all the hows and whys of a David Lynch film to be frightened, moved, and prodded for laughs. Yorgos Lanthimos operates in the same space, and on that level, ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ is probably his most accessible movie to date. This is unsettling, nightmare-inducing stuff with as much or as little to read below the surface as you choose to bring to the material. It’s a thinking person’s horror flick.