“You’re too young to worry”
Writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos is an artist who deals with consequences through elaborately skewed and often-uncomfortable scenarios just left of the off-putting spot that’s just left of center. He uses absurdity and humor to provoke us to allow his complex existential and social messages to hit home in a way strict realism never could. His films are thus morality plays of sorts, pitting characters against one another in a puzzle that may or may not be of their own choosing. They are presented with a challenge to overcome, one in which survival carries with it a huge psychological and/or emotional cost. Dogtooth centered upon sexuality and the complications it provides within an oppressive environment. The Lobster‘s focus was love, its traditional form wielded as a weapon against unorthodoxy.
Both of these works (co-written by long-time collaborator Efthymis Filippou) also deal with family as an imperative, be it the one you’re born into and thus ruled by, or the one you seek to build as your own. So it’s no surprise that their latest would shed pretenses to devote its entirety to a single nuclear unit tested to its limits. The Killing of a Sacred Deer utilizes sexuality, love and guilt in a way that transforms each into a transactional force. Nothing the characters within do is without some form of reciprocation. Lanthimos and Filippou have constructed a chessboard where more happens in the moments between moves than during the moves themselves. They’ve put Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) in check from the start, sitting back to watch how he reacts.
Steven is a successful cardiologist, husband to a successful opthamologist/loving wife/mother Anna (Nicole Kidman), father to a scientifically-inclined boy (Sunny Suljic‘s Bobby) and artistically-motivated teen daughter (Raffey Cassidy‘s Kim), and friend to a weird young man named Martin (Barry Keoghan). His relationship with the family is artificially normal as it “goes through the motions” so to speak, their machinations stiltedly rote as though they’re following a manual on how to co-exist under one roof for optimal prosperity. No matter how awkward this sheen is, however, it’s easy to ignore when compared to the mystery surrounding Steven’s secretive rendezvous with Martin. This is especially true of Lanthimos fans expecting such a dry, deadpan aesthetic. This reality isn’t a world within a world like previous work, but you accept its peculiarities nonetheless.
So what is Steven and Martin’s connection? We ask ourselves this question for the first of the film’s two hours. The answer is simple: Martin is the son of a patient who died on Steven’s operating table. The latter felt sympathy for the boy and stayed in touch over the years since their shared tragedy. Rather than explain this straight away, though, the filmmakers decide instead to let us flap in the wind. They fill the screen with what often prove to be excruciatingly long passages that provide little in the way of content. We glean certain details about Steven’s newfound sobriety and his lies to both his family and coworker (Bill Camp‘s anesthesiologist Matthew) about who Martin is, but never enough to warrant the time spent.
It’s all an infusion of mood with the accompaniment of a cacophonous score played at an ever-fluctuating volume. We’re meant to find ourselves off-balance by the non-melodious music and dialogue, each disquieting in their unnatural cadences. But while this does work for a time, its continual presence soon proves hollow. The silence is too vacant to match Dogtooth‘s palpable suspense and the discomfort is never comical enough to elicit the chuckles earned by The Lobster‘s darkly comic tilt. We’re therefore caught in a no man’s land of monotony, frustration growing until a revelation finally arrives in the form of Bobby’s unprovoked and undiagnosable paralysis. Finally there’s something to sink our teeth into. And yet even this ends up feeling wasted thanks to an aftermath that’s just as empty.
Empty not in substance, but execution. Where things go and how Martin’s presence reveals itself to be dangerously calculating in supernatural ways that can only be explained as the karmic retribution of a vengeful and real God everyone has accepted as judge and jury is quite satisfying. Lanthimos and Filippou have more or less taken the philosophical concepts at the back of work like Richard Matheson‘s “Button, Button” and its underrated cinematic adaptation The Box from Richard Kelly and repurposed it for their uniquely uneasy style. Unfortunately the result feels as though they didn’t quite trust the message as strongly as in the past. Rather than let it be the sole cause of the characters’ claustrophobic chaos, they infuse extra noise that waters everything down rather than enhance.
The end is known as soon as the second of Steven’s children fall ill like Martin’s harbinger of fate declared. Despite this being irrefutable, however, Lanthimos continues at his laborious pace in the hopes we’re still possessed by uncertainty. So he adds a kidnapping plot. He adds a romance. He adds all these feasible threads to augment the impossible choice Steven must make to save those that are in his power to save and yet they only prolong the inevitable. That’s not to say there isn’t some success in the waiting—the expanded time frame allows those on the chopping block to cycle through ego and humility with begging and flattery proving possible avenues towards keeping themselves alive. But even they add little more than distraction.
The whole feels like a short story bloated out of control, a desire to create something beautiful in its intensity damaging the coherency and potency of what’s actually portray. But it is beautiful. It is complex in a way that begs for interpretation and projection onto your own life—your actions holding more devastation than your position of privelege or safety believes. The acting is also fantastic across the board from Farrell’s internalized suffering, Kidman’s invigorating pivot from docile beta to empowered alpha, and Keoghan’s calmly ambivalent holder of uneven scales tipping back to neutral regardless of Steven’s choice. There’s a film to rival Lanthimos’ previous efforts within The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but its present form simply isn’t it. Even the greats sometimes lose their way.
Rating: R | Runtime: 121 minutes | Release Date: October 20th, 2017 (USA)
Director(s): Yorgos Lanthimos
Writer(s): Yorgos Lanthimos & Efthymis Filippou