Movie Review: The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos finds an excellent fit for his eccentric style in this horror thriller.
After being intrigued, but ultimately unsatisfied, by Lanthimos’ surreal love story, The Lobster, I was anxious to see more of his work. His films blend flat, affectless performances with grotesque events in ways that highlight some of the absurdities of human existence. By wedding his signature approach to film-making with the tropes of a horror film, Lanthimos finally finds the perfect lock to which his stylistic key is matched.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
A brilliant but troubled surgeon played by Collin Farrell is carrying on a clandestine friendship with a young man (Barry Keoghan) who has a mysterious connection to the doctor’s past. As the young man begins to fixate more and more on his mentor, things take a dark turn. The surgeon soon must make a terrible choice in order to protect his family from the sins of his past.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer loosely adapts the Greek myth of Iphigenia into a modern setting. It’s not one to one, and several aspects have been reworked. I would actually suggest that viewers refrain from brushing up on their mythology before seeing this film as too much knowledge spoils some of the tension. Since this film is weird and mesmerizing enough for multiple viewings, my opinion is you should go into it cold the first time, do a little digging into the myth, and then watch it again to see how it changes the perspective of the events.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ style amputates much of the emotional heft of dialogue from the physical delivery of his script. Characters tend to recite their speech in a toneless manner, like automatons or children reading from a book which they are utterly unfamiliar with. This divorce of delivery from content places greater emphasis on the words themselves while creating ambiguity. It’s like receiving a text message that says something outlandish. Do you take it literally or guess that there is some sort of emotional shading that you are being denied by the simple text?
Nearly every aspect of Lanthimos’ films are meant to isolate the variables. Without emotional responses to guide our intuitive reading of events, everything becomes suspect. Common occurrences are rendered alien, forcing you to re-evaluate everything. When the events become grotesque and absurd, you’re already in a state of mind to question your reaction to them. Are they naturally repellent, or are you just primed to distrust everything the director is showing you?
Delivering Lanthimos’ style is no easy affair, which may explain why he works with the same actors repeatedly. I have to say that Collin Farrell thrives under this style. He really impressed me with his performance in The Lobster and he is excellent again here. There’s something natural about his unnatural performance that serves the film to great effect. His ease is almost a detriment, since so few others can inhabit this weird style so intuitively.
As much as I liked Barry Keoghan and Nicole Kidman in this film, they never feel as “at home” in Lanthimos’ strange country as Farrell, making their performances feel a bit forced. It’s an odd dilemma where actors who give strong traditional performances look out of place since everything is so super-stylized. Kidman is a fine actress, and performs the physical aspects of her role perfectly, but she never feels as robotic as Lanthimos’ characters should be. She actually feels too human for this film!
Having seen all of Lanthimos’ films, Killing of a Sacred Deer is his most complete product. Some of this may be the natural evolution of a director. His shot compositions feel more elegant and effective, and the sound work in this movie is striking. The film is paced out perfectly, sprinkling twists and reveals in such a way that keeps the forward momentum constant. Every little aspect of the craft seems improved, but I think The Killing of a Sacred Deer is his best film for another reason: the tropes of the horror genre are almost ideally suited to his methods.
The horror genre requires a suspension of disbelief at its core. You have to believe the supernatural exists. Killers can move through dreams, ghosts can haunt houses, the dead can walk and curses are real. Against this you have people who are a touch unreal. Characters in horror movies tend to be archetypes and to behave irrationally. To be effective, the horror has to evoke primal fears and responses. As such, a horror movie is already a simultaneous distillation and abstraction of the human animal.
Allegory operates along much the same line, but more broadly. You know you’re seeing unreal people in unreal events in order to get a much broader message across. It’s easy to go wide of the mark and lose the suspension of disbelief. Horror lets the absurd exist without much overthinking from the audience. This allows Lanthimos to indulge his fascination with how tragedy makes fools of us all and reveals the ugliness we usually conceal with polite fictions.
A Tour of Hell.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer may be a difficult watch for many viewers. There are many unpleasant moments and grotesqueries on unflinching display. The events are horrific, after all, and Lanthimos is pulling back the curtain on many awful aspects of the human condition on purpose. It’s not a feel-good romp.
That being said, I think it is an excellent movie that blends common tropes with a singular style to create a film like nothing you’ve seen before. It is a masterfully crafted film about terrible things, like a luxury tour through an insane asylum, but one where you recognize the people in Bedlam as your friends and neighbors…perhaps even yourself.