After the success of 2015’s The Lobster, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has been launched into the limelight, heralded as one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. His latest project, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, only seems to fuel his thriving status.
Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a respected surgeon, spending much of his time outside of the hospital meeting up with a teenage boy named Martin. Their conversations seem to be underpinned with buried guilt; the young man almost feels like he could be a child of divorce, seeing Steven in order to maintain a relationship. But, they are not father and son, there is something else going on. Things seem unnervingly quaint, and when Martin is finally introduced to the rest of the Murphy family, Steven’s patriarchal authority is threatened entirely.
To put it bluntly, this film feels as though an alien had directed it. The range of spaces shot by Lanthimos’s recurring cinematographer, Thimios Bakatakis, feel as though they are being objectified through a vacant and unfamiliar eye, very much in the vein of Daniel Landin’s work on Under the Skin. The deadpan performances and absurdist humour are an imitation of life – this is not how people interact, speak, or even look. In one scene, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) finds her mum (Nicole Kidman) watering the plants at night, and it may be circumspect to wonder if she has ever seen her garden before; they all seem like elaborate figurines under a game-masters sadistic display. The juxtaposition of intrusive close-ups with long shots of a Kubrickian grandeur demonstrate an intentional effort to infer that the characters are trying to familiarise themselves with their own roles in this universe. The director appropriately never adds context, deciding to instantly plunge the audience into a world they are unsure and rather scared of – so, the mood conjured in his latest film is perfectly suited to this consistent feeling of uncertainty.
The performances are terrific, and Colin Farrell is arguably the perfect leading man suited to Lanthimos’s steering towards having his characters spout the first thing that comes into mind, no matter how how little thought process has gone into their rambling. It is sometimes nonsensical, ranging from insensitive and unnecessary statements, all the way to the meaningless barbarism of sit-com rabbits in David Lynch’s Inland Empire. But, with the Murphy family’s comedic openness aside, there is Martin. Barry Keoghan is electrifying, intense, despicable – providing a memorable on-screen antichrist of such manipulative power. He always seems to be calling the shots, and amidst his cold and calculated demeanour, one could begin to question whether the cold eye of the camera is in fact Martin’s; surveying the family at all times, stopping ever so rarely to practise blinking.
There is an overbearing evil to it all – it’s images, the twisted routes its narrative takes, and a score that would lead one to place the film firmly within the Horror genre. It often feels like something we shouldn’t be watching, and this feeling is something that the director embraces in a chilling, intense climax. In a world where rooms are lamplit despite the windows revealing daylight, rationality is suspended. It is constructed superbly, but it’s arguable that the film suffers from the same problem as The Lobster; it sometimes feels like the film has ran its course. As the films third act threatens to immobilise the narrative, it begins to feel like the plot has reached a conclusion it cannot outflank. Impressively, Lanthimos recovers and provides a last act of pure dread.
As noted, The Killing of a Sacred Deer feels like something Kubrick might have made, visually and in tone. But, the director’s humour and construction of character is unlike no other, so that when one notices similarities to Eyes Wide Shut or The Shining, they equally reminisce over the body of work Lanthimos has provided, and with every film since Dogtooth, he is blazingly earning auteur coinage.