When we think auteurs, we often talk about visual touchstones and motifs a director has, thematic interests, and character types. Rarely do we talk about an auteur and tone. Sure, the list of auteurs have a tight control of their tones, but creating an entirely new tone is something unique and hardly ever done. Yorgos Lanthimos is one of those auteurs. His mixing of truly dark material with a deadpan comic sensibility and a dash of absurdism is unmistakably Lanthimos. That feeling of being sick to your stomach with a big smile on your face makes you simultaneously love and hate everything in the world and yourself. It’s a tone I am always eager to ingratiate myself into and play around for a couple of hours.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer fits right along side Lanthimos’ previous works (Dogtooth, The Lobster). All of his tonal touchstones are there. However, this time he has really cranked up the darkness of his premise. He doesn’t put as big a smile on your face as he did in The Lobster, but that knot in your stomach he wants to clench even tighter than he already does. This is Lanthimos’ perverse take on justice, and it’s as sharp and horrifying as you are picturing in your head. Probably even more so.
Colin Farrell, reteaming once again with Lanthimos, stars as Steven, a surgeon with a wife (Nicole Kidman) and two kids (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic). He also has an odd relationship with teenage boy Martin (Barry Keoghan). We learn that Martin’s father died in surgery, and Steven has taken Martin under his wing after not handling the passing of his father very well. You would think the stomach knot I would be referring to, based on that premise, is the gradual attempt by Martin to bring himself into Steven’s family. However, things start getting weird when one day Steven’s son is unable to walk.
As much as I would love to discuss what happens after that, the unfolding of what is happening is just too interesting and messed up for you not to experience on your own. Another thing Lanthimos is so great at is firmly establishing the rules of the worlds he creates. When we learn exactly what is going on, we buy into it immediately despite how actually absurd it is. He has tremendous faith in his audience buying into his crazy visions, and that is something to be admired. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is his most assured film in that capacity.
He also as a visual stylist has evolved greatly. His previous works firmly show us the immense power and humor he can get from a static long take. This film puts his camera much more on the move, with Kubrick-style symmetrical tracking shots with characters on the move, using unsettling wide-angle lenses. The mix of those two visual styles runs the risk of jumbling the tone, but the two mesh so well, as the moving shots create tremendous momentum and the static ones stretching that rubber band of tension as slow as it can until it snaps. The climatic scene is a perfect example of this and is sure not to be forgotten anytime soon. Its one of those perfect Lanthimos scenes where you think to yourself, “Jesus. Is this what we’re really doing? Well… okay then.”
Farrell continues his amazing ability from The Lobster to expertly deliver Lanthimos’ trademark deadpan. The tenor of Farrell’s voice is perfectly suited to find life in a line meant to be lifeless. Kidman may not have the verbal gift Farrell does, but she does fit right in line in the Lanthimos-verse, as do the two actors playing their kids. Keoghan may have a spotty American accent, particularly playing off of fellow Irishman Colin Farrell, but his mere look is an uneasy presence. Just the way he sits in a chair makes you want to force him out of the room.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer will upset some people, and that is a great thing. It dares to defy audience expectations and make its characters do unimaginable things. The laughing and squirming in your seat is just Yorgos Lanthimos playing you like a fiddle. No one is making movies like this, and I adore every second of it. Being placed in that one-of-a-kind headspace is cinematic bliss. The Killing of a Sacred Deer has a couple of flaws here and there, but they are nothing compared to spending two hours tensely luxuriating in Lanthimos’ crazy world.
Categories: Film Festival Reviews
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