Review: The Killing of a Sacred Deer
By Luke Cimarusti
This is a film of zooms. S-l-o-w zooms. Zooms in. Zooms out. Kubrickian zooms. Documentary zooms. And when the camera isn’t zooming, it’s situated at a point almost where a more conventional director might want it. In short, viewing this film is not a particularly comfortable experience, from a cinematographic point of view. But if you’ve seen any of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ other films (Dogtooth and The Lobster especially), you may know this is par for the course.
What you may also know is that the subject matter of his films is rarely comfortable. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is no exception. Its focus is the strange relationship between a high school boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan), and a wealthy surgeon, Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell). As the two meet regularly over lunch, Martin becomes progressively more obsessive, often waiting for Steven in the hospital and calling constantly at odd hours. It’s a carefully crafted thriller, so I can’t spoil too much, but their relationship eventually escalates into an absurd supernatural revenge narrative. Steven’s family suffers inexplicably, and Martin becomes an unlikely antagonist. Nicole Kidman plays Steven’s intense, cuttingly-frank wife, and Alicia Silverstone stars as Martin’s hand-loving mother.
Absurdity is a hallmark of Lanthimos’ works. They hit hard emotionally and psychologically, but these films are funny. And that makes you feel guilty. But the presentation, the seeming naïveté of the characters, the deadpan nature of the acting (especially in Farrell’s case), leave you with no choice but to laugh at abuse, violence, kidnapping, and the unsettling ways in which the characters interact with one another. Lanthimos makes no attempt to present his characters as realistic; they inhabit a suburban world all their own, lacking in any continuity or semblance of reality. But this makes them all the more compelling in the way they carry themselves. Despite their proper, luxurious suburban lifestyle, they’ve shed taboos we take for granted.
Comfort of viewing aside, this is a gorgeously made film. Every shot is impeccable, almost descriptive or documentary in its clarity. One might even say sterile, but never lifeless. It’s simultaneously at odds with the disturbing narrative and encouraging of it in its purity of representation. Tension is conveyed more through the stunningly unsettling soundtrack, and even at the height of tension it maintains its humor. Frankly it’s an emotionally confusing film - Lanthimos has honed his powers of black comedy to a particularly sharp point this time around.
Fair warning: The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a bit over two hours, and it can really feel like it sometimes. Lanthimos tends to take one theme and run with it in his films, and they often overlap from film to film. That’s not to say his work is hackneyed, or, god forbid, samey, but after an hour I did wish he had picked up the pace a bit. He might have taken measures to further differentiate it from his previous work. Much of the similarity stems from Farrell’s acting, which, like in The Lobster, is hilariously poker-faced.
If you’re prepared to be disturbed, and laugh while doing it, go see this film. While I’m not sure Lanthimos has outdone himself, he’s created another fabulously and absurdly horrible world to dive into. Give it a chance and see why he’s creating some of the most distinct and emotionally challenging films out there right now.