by Philip Price
My first experience with a Yorgos Lanthimos film came two years ago when, in a spur of the moment decision, I decided to see what “The Lobster” was all about while attending my first Toronto International Film Festival. I walked out of that film a little mystified and largely confused about what I'd just experienced and, looking back, that was undoubtedly appropriate. While I wasn't overly fond of the film I found myself thinking about it day after day in what likely ended up being the film my brain latched onto the most out of that festival as far as contemplating what it meant and how it was crafted. There were other films I liked more, but I was more than fascinated with “The Lobster.” Months later, I found myself eager to purchase the Blu-ray when the film arrived on home video and eager to re-watch what had perplexed me to see if I might gain new perspective or insight. I made it through about half of the film before it started to feel like this great concept that Lanthimos was tracking began to wear thin. Funnily enough, this is like the experience I've now had with Lanthimos' follow-up, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” as well. To this end is to say that, while it's best to go into the film cold, it's hard to know what to expect even if you have seen a trailer or read the synopsis. With either kind of expectation, the first 40 or so minutes of the film prove to be especially engaging. There is a frankness to the whole affair that is rather shocking while at the same time wholly engulfing due to the fact these characters can and do say literally anything that is on their minds at any given moment of conversation. While the basic character dynamics are established within the realm of this first hour there is still no real indication as to why it's vital to know who these people are or why they're in each other's lives. Moreover, Lanthimos is crafting this off-kilter universe where we, as a race, still operate under the same societal structures (which you couldn't say about The Lobster), but our behavior as such is completely altered. In this type of scenario, one can't help but to be naturally intrigued as to what the hook with such a set-up might be, but as it comes to be in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” I would have much rather been allowed to just exist in this strange world for, as soon as the general conflict kicks in, the rest of the film feels largely senseless and hollow.
In short, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” follows a teenager's attempts to bring a brilliant surgeon into his dysfunctional family which takes a series of unexpected turns. From the outside, this would-be Colin Farrell's surgeon, Steven Murphy, whom the young teenager, Martin (Barry Keoghan), has recently met and struck up a close, almost kinship with. The origins of this relationship are never really explained aside from a few throwaway lines that only serve to make the relationship all the odder. At the end of the day it is probably safe to assume that Farrell's character believes he is doing the work of a Good Samaritan as Martin is an ambitious, but fatherless young man who aspires to be a surgeon one day as well. Having taken Martin under his wing, Steven feels he might be of some source of guidance. Steven even goes so far as to introduce Martin to his picturesque family that includes his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman) who is also a doctor, and their two children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). The Murphy's live in a lovely house in an idealistic suburb and it's not hard to see from the moment Martin sets foot among them that he's envious of all they have though one doesn't imagine he is immediately plotting to dismantle this picture of perfect existence in any way he can. You see, Martin lives alone in what he refers to as a lesser house, but it is still very much a pristine picture of what Lanthimos must imagine represents genuine Americana. In this house lives Martin's single mother who is played, in an all too brief appearance, by Alicia Silverstone (another touch of Lanthimos' that seems to suggest the idea of the All-American girl). The problem with “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is that while it seems to have seeds of ideas throughout, the emphasis on the American dream and the consistent showing-up of symbols that represent as much for instance (this was shot in Cincinnati, if you needed further proof), there is nothing of note that is ever stated or comes to feel of any real weight around such topics from either Lanthimos or writing partner Efthymis Filippou. Rather, Lanthimos and Filippou allow their film to lessen rather than evolve as the picture becomes more a revenge thriller rather than the kind of psychological horror movie it seemed that first hour hinted at. While “The Lobster” is my only previous experience with Lanthimos' work there was still something within that film the writer/director was discussing and weighing in on whereas here, while one could make the argument that he is commenting on people dealing with loss and coping with loss-that idea of abandoning all reason because it's all emotion-this didn't resonate with me as the characters all felt too stilted and forward (which is a fun stylistic choice) to sympathize with or invest in.
That said, what I did find overwhelmingly appealing about the film was that of its aesthetic choices. This is a gorgeous film with style to spare and atmosphere for days. There's a coldness to it all, sure, but whatever this choice does as far as story is concerned it still has an impact on a completely visceral level where the looks, sounds, and composition of it all are impressive on their own no matter if the movie connects or fails to connect on an intellectual level. This was apparent from that first, haunting trailer where Cassidy's rendition of Ellie Goulding's "Burn," allowed for the song to take on a whole new meaning as it was paired with images of Farrell carrying kids through white hospital hallways and dropping them on their knees or of kids crawling across the floors of their picturesque houses. Lanthimos is keenly aware of what he wants to utilize music and sound for and thus is the reason he keeps the full rendition of "Burn" in the actual feature, but this time remains focused on the innocent-seeming Kim while juxtaposing it against Keoghan's devious, but currently mysterious Martin to add this air of uncertainty to everything in with this layer of the familiarity. Furthermore, Lanthimos doesn't use a single composer to score his film, but instead the soundtrack is an amalgam of Schubert, Sofia Gubaidulina, Janne Rättyä, and sound designer Johnnie Burn that builds this overarching mood of the piece. The sound and music are a crucial part of Lanthimos' movie and that is more than apparent as many times these elements will overtake the dialogue to move or dictate what the audience should be feeling while consistently suggesting this grim level of foreboding. I have heard others liken this to Lanthimos' version of a Stanley Kubrick film given its large open spaces, cavernous hallways filmed with epic tracking shots, and other pastiche elements such as the symmetry and quality of lighting throughout (one critic even noted the similarity of Kidman's appearance here and how she looked in 1999's “Eyes Wide Shut,” which is worth more than it might initially seem). This is a fascinating way to approach the film, especially if one feels themselves becoming detached from the story the film eventually divulges. Watching for how often the camera slowly zooms in on its main subject as the scene at hand unfolds (hint: a lot) or from which angle Lanthimos shoots his subjects in certain scenes and how the content of that scene might suggest why this decision was made. These are all interesting facets especially when they create this sense of stalking or of hovering as they do to make the audience feel as if we shouldn’t be seeing what we’re seeing and that we’re constantly on the fringe of being discovered, but these are also things we shouldn't notice at all as they should serve to enhance the narrative and not become it.
“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” opens with a shot of open heart surgery. Of the heart, the organ itself, pumping within the restraints of the medical devices used to keep all the parts of the patient's breastbone from obstructing what was a procedure presumably being done by our protagonist. It is one of those visual choices-those visceral moments where, right off the bat, whatever pre-disposition you have to any element of this be it blood, flesh, doctors, austere procedures, or that of the power surgeon's must feel they hold in the palm of their hands or the will of their being-that grabs our attention and forces us to react; the reaction quickly going from that of rational fears or ideas to that of more philosophical ones. In this way, it would be impossible to completely dismiss “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” as little more than style over substance, but unfortunately-this is kind of what it comes down to. That isn't to say there isn't effort to do otherwise, but more that this effort fails to communicate in such ways that the cold atmosphere purposefully intended to reinforce that stilted way in which these characters communicate as well as the bleakness they face and have no escape from becomes how we feel about the film-cold and detached. Admittedly, I dig the approach Lanthimos takes in terms of how he presents the situations unfiltered and without complications, but more so matter of fact to the point it feels there is no other way this situation could have gone. I like the precedent that is set for how these characters will interact with one another and it is even more enjoyable to see how much the likes of Farrell and Kidman understand this tone and understand what Lanthimos is going for to the point they execute it in a hilariously, but equally disturbing deadpan fashion. I like it, sure, and it's entertaining, but why this stylistic choice-what purpose does it serve or how does it better help accomplish the story being told or the topic being discussed? This is where the film falls short for me as with all the care and craft that has clearly gone into creating this world and these people and the way in which Lanthimos will capture what he has conceived the final product ultimately has nothing remotely commentative, or profound, or anything, really, to say at all about what it has just put the viewer through by the time the credits begin to roll. More, it has likely left the viewer with more questions than answers, but not in the way of contemplative ponderings, but more in the vein of, "I feel like the basis for that whole movie falls through because I don't know how Martin could possibly even accomplish what he is accused of doing." That said, Keoghan is a revelation in his role as someone essentially exacting emotional torture on his victims, but as this becomes more a movie that is weird for the sake of being weird it becomes more apparent the film itself is more paralyzed in its thoughts and ideas than those of its own characters that it incapacitates.