Director Yorgos Lanthimos excels as making films during which you seriously contemplate leaving the theater. This is not due to any lack of quality; if anything it’s the exact opposite. Furthermore, Lanthimos has a strange ability to create scenes that are at once unnerving and utterly hysterical, which in its own way unnerves the audience even more. This is part of what made his previous film, The Lobster such a fantastic, yet genuinely unpleasant experience. This is also part of what makes The Killing of a Sacred Deer such a unique and bizarre thriller.
I will avoid spoilers entirely here, as The Killing of a Sacred Deer is best viewed with as little knowledge of the plot as possible. The film focuses on the Murphy family: a cardiovascular surgeon named Steven (Colin Farrell), his wife, an ophthalmologist named Anna (Nichole Kidman), and their two children. All actors here (yes, even the kids) turn in stellar performances. Nichole Kidman in particular is worthy of special notice; this is her best performance in years. We are also treated to Barry Keoghan’s thoroughly off-kilter Martin, a troubled young boy with a mysterious (at least initially) relationship with Steven.
In any Lanthimos film, it’s borderline impossible to tell whether or not we are supposed to perceive a character as particularly strange, because everybody is particularly strange. Characters are far too blunt and honest, they over-explain everything, and they tend to fixate on completely inconsequential details (such as a two minute conversation on the merits of metal watch bands as opposed to leather ones). The dialogue becomes a sort of cyclical poetry of the mundane, yet we accept it as we would characters speaking in iambic pentameter in Shakespeare.
This style of writing works flawlessly with Farrell’s accent and delivery, and he acts as an amplifier for Lanthimos’ strange style in The Lobster, and again here. To be completely honest, I’m doubtful that Lanthimos would be able to pull off his signature atmosphere quite so effectively with any other actor in the lead. The chemistry is that perfect.
I say all of this as a somewhat inelegant segue to the revelation that is Barry Keoghan in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. The only other film I’ve seen him in was this year’s phenomenal Dunkirk, in which he played “George,” or “kid who hits head on pipe” as I like to call him. While I enjoyed his scenes in Dunkirk, he was given little if anything to do by the script, and was kind of just there to raise the emotional stakes. The same cannot be said of his performance here.
Keoghan steals the show with an unusual, disquieting, and borderline flawless performance. He encapsulates the idiosyncratic and twisted humor (mixed with suspense) that Lanthimos is going for here, and delivers what is easily the best performance in the film, even considering my aforementioned praise of the chemistry between the director and Farrell.
The cinematography is similarly exceptional. Many of the shots leave a great deal of space above the character’s heads in the frame. This does a brilliant job of thoroughly unsettling the audience without being at all obvious. It may sound like a minor detail to credit with so much affect, but if you were to watch this film on one screen and any other psychological thriller on another directly next to it, the massive difference that this makes would become apparent immediately. I have never seen camera work quite like this before, which is a sentence that I say rarely about anything in film, camera work or otherwise. This is one of the best looking films of the year (high praise considering Blade Runner 2049 and Dunkirk were also released in 2017), and its complete command of visual style and the way it can be used to manipulate the audience’s emotions is quite remarkable. This is also one of the few ways that it improves on The Lobster.
I keep mentioning The Lobster because not only was it among the best films of 2015, but it was one of the very best examples of social satire I’ve ever seen. It is easily on the level of Get Out, and may in fact be the superior example of a director plying his craft (admittedly the subject matters differ greatly between films, and the message of Get Out is objectively more important). Lanthimos’ odd dialogue patterns and perverted rendition of our world underlined this element, and combined to create a genuinely disturbing, yet strangely funny movie.
Unfortunately, this is where I begin to feel conflicted about The Killing of a Sacred Deer. For as much as the camerawork, writing, and performances are outstanding, the story fell flat for me. The strangeness of Lanthimos’ vision felt sadly empty this time around, and made the entire experience come up short of the high bar set by The Lobster. In no way am I saying that all of his films need to have an element of social commentary, but it was disappointing to see such style spent on a fairly straightforward story.
On my way home from the theater I came up with two possible interpretations of what was happening throughout the plot, but in both cases the answer was disappointingly simple and linear. To some extent, without a deeper idea to tackle and compliment the supreme weirdness of its characters, The Killing of a Sacred Deer feels like a beautiful painting that lacks dimension.
This having been said, the more I think about The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the more details I begin to unpack. There is undoubtedly a victory in the fact that I was allowed by the filmmaker to make up my own mind rather than having the answers spoon-fed to me like most Hollywood features.
If nothing else, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a wonderful showcase for Yorgos Lanthimos and his unique style. Despite this film’s shortcomings on the story front, I crave more movies like this: movies willing to take a risk, be bold, and break with the proven formula. I would rather watch a flawed film executed with such an unwaveringly unique hand than another CGI nightmare like the third act of any superhero movie, or another misguided and borderline insulting attempt at social commentary (I’m looking at you Suburbicon). I want a movie that can make me uncomfortable simply through atmosphere. I want a movie that can scare me without resorting to just playing loud noises to spook me. I want a movie that isn’t afraid to take a chance and try something I haven’t seen ten thousand times already. If you want to see a movie like this, give The Killing of a Sacred Deer a try. It may not be perfect, but I challenge you to find a more singularly unique film to watch this year.