If Yorgos Lanthimos’ surrealist tragicomedy The Lobster was an unsettling interrogation on relationships, then his newest film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is a similarly absurdist examination on the old vs. the new and how drastic the consequences of one’s actions can be, from one generation to the next.
The actions of whom this concerns are cardiologist, husband and father of two, Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell). After a failed operation due to condemnable reasons, Steven is faced with the repercussion in the form of the young Martin (Barry Keoghan), who seeks to enforce justice on Steven, at the expense of those he loves.
This synopsis is deliberately thin so as to avoid spoiling any of the thoroughly disturbing details that Lanthimos dishes out to you on his personal plate of awkward horror. This is not like anything you’ve seen before. Its themes are relevant and prevalent but told in a manner that only a surrealist like Lanthimos could get away with.
What is this manner? Well, for anyone who has seen The Lobster, you’ll have experienced it first-hand. Lanthimos refuses to work within convention: not just in terms of cinematic technique, but with regards to the basic societal rules that we all follow, such as tone of speech and the subject matter that this speech concerns itself with. You may feel a little disconcerted by the starkly apathetic delivery of dialogue by acclaimed actors such as Farrell and Nicole Kidman (playing Steven’s wife, Anna). Yet this is entirely in the service of the narrative. Lanthimos is looking to disrupt any semblance of normalcy within our expectations of the film and its own reality. For what purpose? As mentioned earlier, to challenge our conception of society, according to the conservative template set by Steven, and the subsequent threat that surfaces through the childlike Martin.
It’s a terrifying film in this way. It understandably challenges our comfort zone: we know that we feel safe and sheltered in our little bubble, but Lanthimos wants to burst that bubble, leaving us stranded in a shaken state of ill assurances. Whilst the initial relationship between Steven and Martin will have you second guessing my claims, Lanthimos is merely luring you into a false sense of security. The Killing of a Sacred Deer rises on its ability to do this: to create a sense of paranoia about every scene that follows and whether they will unveil another abhorrent truth.
None of this would work without all of the phenomenally crafted elements coming together. In addition to Lanthimos and his co-writer Efthymis Filippou’s dense and dark script, cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis and actors Farrell, Kidman and Keoghan, all deliver in their respective areas, as expertly functioning cells within Lanthimos’ strict system of disquieting dread. Farrell and Kidman play their roles with a detached vigour that ironically, yet deliberately induces both laughter and shivers. Furthermore, Keoghan all but steals the show as the ultimate manifestation of the Lanthimosian character: innocent and naïve in demeanour and delivery, Keoghan’s Martin is anything but, a sinister spanner thrown into the works, subtly breaking down the pillars of Steven’s world until the inevitable payoff. And Bakatakis and Mavropsaridis capture all of this, through an attentive emphasis on long takes and lingering shots that refuse to pull away from scenarios that may have your hair standing on end: one sequence, involving a close-up of a heart, may leave you wanting to wretch, but ultimately, due to Mavropsaridis’ denial of the comforting cut, we are left unable to draw our eyes away.
It’s this efficiency, this concentrated control of all the elements that add to the discomforting effect of the film, that single The Killing of a Sacred Deer out as something special. Its themes are not only present within the narrative, but are shown through the editing, cinematography and performances. There’s no sense of conservative consolation here: Lanthimos wants to radicalise the cinematic format and does so with alarming aplomb. Go in with an open mind. Don’t expect an enjoyable arthouse experience. Lanthimos wants to confront you on every level, to immerse you completely, to challenge your understanding of the world. And yet this kind of film is invaluable in that regard. While it may leave you a little traumatised, there is hope: The Killing of a Sacred Deer proves that there are still filmmakers, and products, that seek to push boundaries and involve us in that process. For that, Lanthimos deserves all the praise I can muster.