Declan Toohey, Contributor.
Many would agree that the most famous review in the history of film criticism is Pauline Kael’s appraisal of Bernardo Bertolucci’s erotic drama ‘Last Tango in Paris.’ (1972) From the pages of The New Yorker in October 1972 she declared that the ‘movie breakthrough has finally come.’ While Bertolucci’s film, contrary to her argument, did not herald an era in which art cinema exerted a significant influence over more popular forms of film, her criticism is a reminder that, every so often, certain art-house movies demonstrate the potential to change the landscape of cinema more generally. In this respect, one could argue that ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ is a ‘breakthrough’ movie (although I would approach that argument with caution as Kael’s thesis has not dated well.) What is more certain, however, is that Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest release is bold, dark, hilarious, and enthralling— even if you hate it, there is no denying that Lanthimos is one of the most original voices in contemporary cinema.
‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ begins with actual footage of open-heart surgery, over which we hear the sombre blasts of Schubert’s ‘Stabat Mater.’ It shocks and intrigues in equal measures, and lets us know at the outset what kind of film is in store for us. Following this prologue, we see how cardiologist Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) splits his time between work, family, and lunch dates with 16-year-old Martin, (Barry Keoghan) whom Steven has been meeting regularly after Martin’s father died on Steven’s operating table. Steven invites Martin over to the Murphy home for dinner one afternoon, sinister happenings occur, and relationships become troubled between Martin and the Murphy’s.
Anyone familiar with Lanthimos’s, ‘Dogtooth’ (2009) or ‘The Lobster’ (2015) will know that one trademark of his work is eccentric dialogue delivered in monotone. This movie is no different, with conversations revolving around wristwatches, soft hands, hair—quite a lot on hair, in fact—and peculiar monologues on spaghetti and a masturbatory incident from Steven’s childhood, which is only made more strange by the fact that Steven delivers it to his young son Bob. (Sunny Suljic) The purpose of this dialogue, however, is clear: to provoke, or to get laughs. Interestingly, a similar kind of dialogue found its way into Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Beguiled,’ (2017) a project which Farrell and Nicole Kidman—who, in Lanthimos’s movie, plays Steven’s wife Anna—immediately moved onto after shooting wrapped for ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer.’ But where Coppola’s dialogue was stilted and boring, Lanthimos’s is stilted and fascinating.
And yet, while the movie is certainly very funny, its tone is far from whimsical. Once Martin crosses the threshold of the Murphy house, we already anticipate the outcome of the macabre plot. When Martin is clearly responsible for a terrible illness that befalls Bob and his sister Kim, (Raffey Cassidy) the narrative thankfully omits any sort of explanation as to how this is the case, a decision which ultimately adds to the film’s ominous atmosphere.
The influence of Stanley Kubrick looms large in ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer,’ and it could even be thought of as a spiritual sequel to ‘The Shining,’ (1980) not necessarily for its plot, but for its design. Both are tragedies, and have an almost unhealthy obsession with wide-angle long shots. They are also less interested in explaining causes of evil than exploring them. Moreover, as Thimios Bakatakis’s camera follows Steven around the hospital, like a ghost floating above or alongside him, one can’t help but think of Danny (Daniel Llyod) riding his tricycle around the interior of the Overlook Hotel as he is stalked by John Alcott’s camera. And if Lanthimos’s debt to Kubrick isn’t clear enough from the first half of his film, in the second half he puts to good use the atonal music of Hungarian composer Györgi Ligeti, whose work appeared prominently in Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’
Much of the enjoyment derived from ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ comes from the sheer originality of the material. In the initial set-up, there is a sense that anything could happen, that anything could be said, as Steven and anaesthesiologist Matthew discuss the water resistance of watches, or as Martin shows Kim and Bob his armpits. Indeed, it almost comes as no surprise that, more than halfway through the film, Steven makes a throwaway comment to Anna about how he is craving mashed potatoes, only for this to spark an argument that culminates with Steven scouring the kitchen for pubic hair and teeth. And yes, you did read that sentence correctly.
It would be foolish to say that ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ will change the future of cinema, but it is nevertheless an important film insofar as it reminds us that there are not so much new stories as new ways of telling old ones. The film is essentially an update of the Greek myth in which King Agamemnon, en route to Troy, offends the goddess Artemis, and is then commanded by Artemis to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia—otherwise, thanks to Artemis’s crafty ways, Agamemnon and his soldiers won’t reach Troy. In some versions of this story, Iphigenia is saved, and thus my mentioning of the myth is not quite a spoiler. But anyone who has seen the trailer will know that ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ is not a film that will end happily.
Despite the fact it is probably Lanthimos’s most accessible film, ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ remains a challenging watch. Some will find it tedious; others will find it too strange for their liking. Yet like his other films, it strives for vitality rather than perfection. It is a tale about insidious evil, and the uselessness of the patriarch in times of family crisis. Taking its place alongside other great movies of the year such as ‘Get Out,’ ‘Raw,’ ‘A Ghost Story,’ ‘Song to Song,’ and ‘Mother,’ ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ is refreshing and vital. Probably not fun for all the family, but it is an invigorating cinematic experience. I’m going to see it again!
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos.
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic.
Runtime: 132 minutes.