The Killing of a Sacred Deer January 27, 2018
2 Hrs., 1 Min.
icole Kidman is among the few bright spots in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer, last year’s follow-up to one of 2016’s best movies, The Lobster. In it, she plays Anna, the frizzy-haired ophthalmologist wife of a respected cardiothoracic surgeon named Steven (Colin Farrell). Married for more than a decade, with two gifted children (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic) and a well-decorated home to boast about, they seem to have it all; they know what it’s like to experience the personal and professional contentment that eludes so many.
But in this world created by Lanthimos and frequent collaborator Efthymis Filippou, the allowance of any sort of contentment isn’t made to last — the atmosphere’s too simply “off” for put-togetherness to make much sense in the grand scheme of things. Simply sit through the first few minutes of the movie and you’ll notice that the characters speak like shape-shifting aliens attempting to replicate human behavior. That even when in the confines of a blue-skied, metropolitan city, there’s something distinctly otherworldly hovering in the air. That the camera coldly looks down upon these people with the indifference of a baby monitor capturing an apparition causing trouble.
Something’s wrong. And that wrongness is epitomized by the mysterious friendship
Steven has with Martin (Barry Keoghan, unsettling), the droopy-eyed 16-year-old son of a man who died on Steven’s operating table a couple years ago. As the film opens, the kinship seems harmless enough — we gather that Martin probably views Steven as something of a father figure. But we can’t help but progressively be rattled by our not knowing what the exact nature of the relationship is: why exactly is there an affinity between a kid and the surgeon indirectly responsible for his father’s demise?
The truth is uncovered an hour or so into the film, but because Lanthimos and Filippou so painstakingly concoct an atmosphere of hair-raising, quieted-down disconcertion and enigma, it’s best I don’t reveal the exact motivation behind Martin’s interest in Steven here to preserve the feature’s mystery-induced dread. All that can be said is that the intentions are sinister, and that the lives of Steven’s loved ones might especially be in jeopardy.
What’s in store comes across like a typical, golden age David Cronenberg movie: a masterfully shot, intelligently written psychological horror movie that manages to alienate and disturb more often than it actually invokes fear. That we admire more than we enjoy. The craftsmanship’s undeniable — you can practically feel the pre-productional details that went into each and every photographic composition — and Lanthimos and his collaborator do conclusively develop an ambience of unshakable agitation, like a pressure cooker about to overheat.
Yet the feeling that the treatment with which the story’s told here rings falsely. Part of Lanthimos’ hyper-specific aesthetic calls for the inclusion of dead-facedly delivered deadpan comedy no matter the material at hand. In The Lobster, this worked: it was a lopsided farce that needed this idiosyncratic brand of comedy to make all the big ideas stick.
But in the case of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which is so bleak and alarming, the humor feels out of place, a confused attempt to provide this dark material with a sense of half-joking absurdity. The story essentially asks we be sympathetic toward these characters — especially Anna and the children, who end up paying the price for Steven’s wrongdoings — but the pitch-black comedy put forth either makes a joke out of the dire plights experienced by all involved or makes some of these characters detestable. (Steven is provided, for instance, with one line circling around the recent menstruating of his teenage daughter and another around the time he sexually molested his own father; both are supposed to be funny because of their preposterousness, but I found them gratuitous and coarse.)
That’s how much of the movie works: it is preposterous and crude and cockeyed in its humor, all the while maintaining a certain academic intellect that cannot easily be argued against. I presume we’re supposed to watch it in awe, impressed by the unusual filmmaking methods of the auteur at the head of the ship. But it’s too cold to be effective, especially since the story being told involves a complex moral dilemma that should cause a sort of visceral reaction.
If there’s any reason to watch The Killing of a Sacred Deer, then, it’s Kidman. When so much around her is icy and foreboding, unwelcoming of any sort of emotion, she takes on the material courageously and headily. Such makes her the only person to which we become attached; we can almost understand exactly how her character feels (we briefly even believe that she’s going to become a sort of quasi-heroine in a film where a black-and-white depiction of good and evil does not exist). But I ultimately suppose that in a movie so uninviting, even the smallest semblance of humanity looks like an invitation. Thank god Kidman provides as much as she can. C-