It would be reductive of me to call Yorgos Lanthimos the new Stanley Kubrick. The Greek director responsible for the provocative films Dogtooth, Alps, and my initiation into his twisted imagination, The Lobster, is nothing if not a unique talent. Still, there are certain undeniable Kubrickian flourishes in his new film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Chief among them are a penchant for inserting nihilistic black comedy in otherwise bleak subject matter, and his facility with patient, beautiful camera movement and framing. Sacred Deer is one of the most challenging, most disturbing films I’ve seen this year.*
Lanthimos can weave a hell of a yarn. He does so in Sacred Deer with an unimaginable tautness. The movie is pure morality tale, apparently a dark twist on the Greek myth of Iphigenia. The instigating event of that story is where he got the name for his movie. The story of Iphigenia has multiple versions, some ending happily, some tragically. Sacred Deer is one of those movies that’s hard to write about because so much of the experience (at least the first time through it) depends on the viewer not knowing what’s coming, or how it will turn out. What’s easy to impart is that multiple subsequent viewings are likely to be as psychologically pulverizing as the first one.
Dr. Steven Murphy is a cardiac surgeon. His wife, Anna, is an ophthalmologist who runs an eye clinic. They have two young kids, Bob and Kim. Their world erupts in chaos when Martin, the teenage son of one of Steven’s former patients, enters it. Martin’s dad died during surgery ten years ago, and Steven has recently become somewhat of a mentor to Martin. When Bob loses the use of his legs one morning, Martin soon tells Steven he is being punished for letting Martin’s father die on the operating table. Bob’s mysterious illness is only the beginning. Martin tells the doctor that he must make a horrific decision if he wants to save his family.
In most movies, a setup like that would usually include the word “perfect” to describe the Murphy family’s world before it erupts in chaos. That’s not quite the case here. Lanthimos is the kind of director who is interested in creating off-kilter, wholly original worlds for his characters to inhabit. Because of that, his idea of “perfect” is bizarre and perplexing. Everyone here acts as if they are aliens trying to approximate human behavior.
Lanthimos and his writing partner, Efthymis Filippou, add to that a layer of comically banal dialog early in the picture that comes back to haunt us by the end. There are scenes of boring average family life. Bob wants to go to a party with his sister, but Steven hesitates in allowing it because Bob has let his hair grow too long for his dad’s liking. Anna chimes in that he should be allowed to go. She loves his hair; it’s so beautiful, after all. Later, the two parents joke about how much Bob wants to be an ophthalmologist, just like his mom.
By the end of the movie, when the family has learned that Steven must make a decision that will affect them all, a twisted sort of self-preservation kicks in as they try to curry favor with him. Bob cuts his own hair, and he makes it clear to Steven that he would rather be a cardiac surgeon instead of an ophthalmologist. The heart is so much more interesting than the eye, he says. Knowing what Steven is being forced to do makes these scenes of bald flattery sad, but at the same time they also work as the blackest of comedy. Both the writing and the performances make it so.
Colin Farrell plays the not-so-good Dr. Murphy with an understated reserve that is in perfect sync with Lanthimos’ world. The two worked together on The Lobster as well, and Farrell seems completely at home in these odd art-house movies. Nicole Kidman is Anna, and her intensity towards the latter part of the film, as Anna’s world falls apart, is as good as anything she’s ever done.
If there’s one mesmerizing screen presence in Sacred Deer, though, it’s without a doubt Barry Keoghan as the sadistic Martin. Keoghan – who gave another strong performance this year in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk – is chilling. The Irishman delivers his lines with a flat, ugly American accent that burrows into your brain. It’s a mastery of that aliens-acting-as-humans idea I mentioned earlier. It’s terrifying to hear his matter-of-factness as he informs Anna that he is inflicting this suffering on her family because it’s the closest he can get to justice. And in a twist of further dark comedy, Lanthimos has Keoghan deliver these lines as he’s slurping up a plate of spaghetti.
The visual design of the movie, particularly Lanthimos’ camera movements and framing, is evocative of Kubrick, and establishes a gorgeous palette with which to paint a horrific story. Lanthimos uses tracking shots and slow zooms to build incredible suspense. He takes care to craft a mood for which the bulk of mainstream movies simply don’t have time.
The musical cues in Sacred Deer go even further in building and sustaining that mood. In particular, Lanthimos’ use of Janne Rattya’s accordion pieces and the experimental orchestral work of Gyorgy Ligeti – whose music, you’ll note, Kubrick used in 2001: A Space Odyssey** – are inspired. The Killing of a Sacred Deer isn’t for everyone, but if you can take it, this morality play has some real teeth, ones that will bite long after the movie ends.
*The other contenders for most challenging, most disturbing film I’ve seen this year are mother!, Okja, and It Comes at Night. mother! is pure fever dream (almost literally). Okja is nausea-inducing empathy for animals. It Comes at Night is more head-on horror. The Killing of a Sacred Deer got under my skin in a way the other three didn’t quite achieve. It’s terrifying in a deeply psychological way.
**While doing some research on Sacred Deer’s score, I came across this, an article that accuses Kubrick of stealing Ligeti’s music for 2001 without compensating him. Apparently Ligeti sued Kubrick, and won $3,000 dollars. I already knew Kubrick was a perfectionist to the point of being an asshole, but this is just one more reason not to idolize people. You have to respect the art, not necessarily the artist, although with Weinstein et. al., even that’s becoming an ever more challenging proposition.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Entering the world of this movie was a bizarre experience, and it was one I couldn't easily shake. Lanthimos is one of the most interesting filmmakers working right now. I'll gladly go on any journey he wants to take, no matter how disturbing it is.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Speaking of disturbing, Lanthimos gives us little touches of creepiness like the sex game Steven and Anna play. He likes her to pretend she's a corpse. It's never commented on, except when their daughter, Kim, mentions it in passing to let her parents know that she knows. The rite of passage that almost all kids go through, seeing things they shouldn't when it comes to their parents in the bedroom, is made much creepier with this added element.
- Alicia Silverstone has a brief turn as Martin's mother. She is gloriously off-kilter here, and it's great seeing her on screen again. Her IMDb page shows that she's been working consistently, but she had fallen off my radar since her heyday in the mid-to-late '90s.
- Bill Camp also makes an appearance in a small supporting role as Matthew, Steven's colleague and anesthesiologist. I first noticed Camp in the HBO series The Night Of, and I really enjoy his work. Steven and Matthew each have a moment that's quite funny where they blame the other's profession any time a patient dies during surgery.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Things are a little up in the air at the moment, but I'm hoping to catch the new film about Vincent Van Gogh. It's called Loving Vincent, and 125 professional oil-painters collaborated to hand paint every single frame of the film. AKA, film geek heaven. Looking around at what else is screening tells me that the new Todd Haynes movie, Wonderstruck, and the new documentary by legendary French director Agnés Varda, Faces Places, are also available. Decisions, decisions...
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- No bad behavior in my screening of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but I do want to comment on the entire audience's stunned silence after the movie was over. This was a press screening, and from what I could tell, just about all of us were press (usually these are advance screenings where they let people who sign up to see a free movie in, and they invite press along, too). No one said a word as we all walked out of the theater. I didn't even turn on my radio for the trip home. I drove in stunned silence.