Killing of a Sacred Deer, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/27/17 11:21:39
Over the past few years, Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos has seen his star rise to the point where he is now considered one of the top names on the world cinema scene. For the most part, this is a development that I have been perfectly happy with—i admired the bleak vision, originality and formal precision of such provocations as “Dogtooth” and “Alps” and while I wasn’t quite as taken with “The Lobster,” his first conscious stab at breaking through to a truly international audience, as others were, it was certainly a unique moviegoing experience and the quirky humor that he infused the material with helped to further enliven things. With his latest work, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” something has gone slightly awry. Make no mistake, this is a film that is beautifully made and nicely acted but the end result feels a little hollow because for once, we can pretty much see where he is heading with the material at a certain point. As a result, none of the shocking developments and outrages manage to inspire much passion or excitement, either from him or from the audience, and the whole thing eventually feels like the unnecessary answer to the unasked question “What would it be like if Michael Haneke had been charged with doing his own version of “Thinner”?”If you decide to go anyway, you may want to consider forgoing a trip to the concession stand since the film opens with a close-up of a beating heart undergoing surgery. The man doing the surgery is Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a man with a good job, a big house and a lovely family consisting of wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), 14-year-old daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and 12-year-old son Bob (Sunny Suljic). Aside from a one-time drinking problem that he overcame a couple of years earlier, Steven’s life would seem to be picture-perfect but just beneath the pretty surface, there are some things that are a bit odd. At home, family conversations and interactions have a weirdly formal tone that is almost robotic in nature while his big kink in the bedroom involves Anna undressing and pretending to be unconscious from anesthetic. Meanwhile, he has been slipping away from work to meet with an odd teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan). At first, we suspect that Martin may be Steven’s secret son or possibly even a clandestine lover—we see him gift the boy with an expensive watch—but that doesn’t quite check out after he invites the boy to a dinner at his house, where Martin makes an impression on the rest of the family. Later, Martin insists on Steven coming to his far less palatial house for dinner with him and his mother (Alicia Silverstone. . . yes, Alicia Silverstone) and more pieces of the puzzle emerge—it seems that Martin’s late father was a patient of Steven’s who died during a surgery that he may or may not have been entirely sober for. Steven’s kindness towards the boy is clearly his way of dealing with his guilt but when the quietly wheedling Martin suggests how it would be better for everyone if the doctor just marries his mother, he finally begins to pull away.
Soon afterwards, Bob wakes up one morning and finds that he cannot get his legs to work. Steven and Anna take him to the hospital and everything seems to be fine with him but when he and Anna are leaving, his legs give out yet again and he is admitted. Soon afterwards, Martin turns up unannounced and takes Steven off to explain a few things to him. Basically he believes that Steven was responsible for his father’s death and that what is happening to Bob is only the first part of an agonizing balancing of the scales of cosmic justice. Before long, Bob will stop eating and start wasting away, eventually bleeding from the eyes before dying in an exceptionally agonizing manner. Not only that, the exact same sequence of events will soon be occurring to Anna and Kim as well with Steve left to witness the destruction of his entire family. There is only one way to stop it all—if Steven kills one member of his family of his choosing, the others will be saved. Naturally, Steven thinks that this is a malicious joke pulled by a cruel boy but when Kim loses the use of her legs as well, he finds himself forced to consider doing the unthinkable and ends up unraveling as a result. Meanwhile, Anna is determined to uncover the hold that Martin has over her husband while the kids, who have gotten wind of what is at stake, begin to slyly compete against each other in the hopes of convincing Steven to pick the other one to kill.
Right from the start, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” wants to let you know that you are in the hands of a master filmmaker and indeed, it is as exquisitely composed from a formal standpoint as one could possibly hope for—with its long tracking shots and offbeat compositions, deliberately measured pacing, oddball erotic content and the oddly ritualistic manner in which the characters talk amongst themselves, not to mention the presence of Nicole Kidman in the cast, there are times when it almost plays like a spiritual sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.” For maybe the first third or so of its running time, I was mostly enraptured by the striking look of the film and the extremely low-key strain of weirdo black humor running through it. I was also intrigued by the basic setup of the film and found myself wondering who this twerpy kid was and why he had such a hold on Steven. This is more or less how I have felt while watching all of the Lanthimos joints that I have seen to date. In those cases, however, the films managed to maintain their aura of mystery and deadpan weirdness pretty much throughout so that even if you didn’t exactly understand what the hell was going on all the time, you were still compelled to keep on watching. The problem here is that once Lanthimos has fully set up his story, he has pretty much laid all of his cards on the table and for the first time in his career, you can pretty much see where he and his story are heading over the next hour. There is still plenty of eyebrow-raising material to be had but the outrages seem more formulaic this time around and help to demonstrate that few things are deadlier to movie audiences than a film that is nowhere near as audacious or transgressive as it likes to think it is—instead of reeling in horror and shock as the climactic events unfold, most moviegoers are likely to instead find themselves thinking “About damn time.”
And yet, despite working with a script that doesn’t really offer many surprises of its own, the performances are interesting enough to liven up the proceedings to the point where you might not notice its deficiencies. As the seemingly perfect Steven, Colin Farrell does a very good job of projecting his character’s unerring sense of his infallibility in the early scenes and then poking holes in that aura of perfection until he is reduced to being utterly bent and broken—ironically, it is when he is face with committing an unabashedly inhumane act that he finally comes across as completely human. By comparison, Nicole Kidman has less to do but her performance is no less compelling and I once again stand in admiration for continuing to use her star power on decidedly offbeat material like this. As the two children of Steven and Anna, Suljic and Cassidy smartly avoid trying to make their characters too sweet and sympathetic and indeed, some of the funniest moments come from the moments when their survival instincts kick in and they each try to get the upper hand on the other by any means necessary. (“When you die, can I have your MP3 player.”) The most memorable performance, however, is the one given by Barry Keoghan as Martin, who finds a way of taking a character who is obnoxious at his best and monstrous at his worst (if the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard could be given a physical manifestation, it would look a lot like this character) so that you are still compelled to watch him even as you find yourself secretly fantasizing about dropping him into an industrial-sized meat grinder.“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is obviously not a film made for the mass audience and even those who might be intrigued by the combination of director. cast and subject matter may find it to be ultimately unsatisfying. And yet, even though I cannot really recommend seeing it, I am not exactly upset that I saw it. Indeed, both the performances and the technical aspects of the film are impressive enough to make it worth considering. In the end, however, I just felt that the whole thing failed to live up to the promise held out by both the film’s early scenes and the filmmaking skills that Lanthimos has displayed in his previous efforts. The guy is an undeniable talent and I am still interested to see what he comes up with in his upcoming endeavors, though I suspect I will be approaching them a little more warily for at least the near future.
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