Just two years ago, Yorgos Lanthimos’s film The Lobster captivated an unsuspecting audience with its bleak comic humor and detached disposition. It introduced people to the matter-of-fact mind of Lanthimos, whose films, both short and feature-length, consist of a cold, despondent aura that somehow manifests an icy hybrid of realized emotion and unfeeling logic. It’s an amalgamation few could pull off with the intrigue that the 44-year-old Greek auteur so artfully does, and his latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is a work of Kubrickian aesthetic that encases a smarmy tale of revenge.
The film revolves around a cardiologist named Steven (Collin Farrell), who makes the acquaintance of Martin (Dunkirk‘s Barry Keoghan), the son of his patient, who died on the operating table. One would be hardpressed to call Steven and Barry friends as their relationship harbors a strained sense of connection, a common theme that bleeds through Lanthimos’s films like a Sharpie on tissue-paper. Regardless, the two carry out an extended mutual acquaintance as Martin slowly permits himself to become more involved in Steven’s life. He befriends Martin’s wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), gets close with his teen daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and engages with his young son Bob (Sunny Suljic), who has a fascination with Martin’s body-hair. Eventually, Bob becomes gravely ill, all starting with growing numbness and subsequent paralysis in his legs. Martin issues a warning to Steven and now the troubled doctor must make a decision involving the future of his family.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a far more entrancing outing than The Lobster, at least in my opinion, although I do confess to being turned off by the film and the “justifications” of its premise upon my initial viewing that I do plan to revisit it before jumping to more drastic conclusions. Moreover, Lanthimos’s followup to his lucrative little wonder shows an even greater dedication to a formalist structure all his own. Rather than the awkward humor undercutting the absurdist scenarios that unfolded in The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer remains more committed to psychological horror, leaving the audience at the mercy of style-choices that seek to provoke.
For instance, Lanthimos’s camera is almost always doing tricks to toy with us. Like Kubrick, he favors symmetrical spaces, such as hallways and spacious rooms that are rendered in such a way that either accentuates a large depth-of-field or has the surroundings tower over its characters – even the film’s theatrical poster renders a conventional hospital room’s walls as considerably taller than Colin Farrell, as if he’s in a massive cathedral. Many of the shots in the first act seem to emphasize the walls of the specific room in which a scene takes place, with a far object appearing in the background to the right or center of the screen, where one’s eyes are most frequently drawn. Sometimes, Lanthimos’s camera zooms forward to shrink a long-shot into a bust or close-up shot. It’s all intensely crafty and unsettling, and it loans itself to making the film a singularly clinical experience.
One major adjustment one has to make when seeing this, The Lobster, or any of Lanthimos’s films is the tone of the dialog and soundtrack. The dialog is almost strictly deadpan, robbed of emotion and inflection; the soundtrack is loud and layered, sometimes purposefully obscuring the dialog. The dialog-delivery is so monotone that when Martin confesses to Steven the reasons behind the recent unfortunate events and speeds through his explanation, the film feels a tad off-balance since a character has broken the continuity. In this instance, I was keenly reminded of a moment in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel that deviated from Anderson’s trademark shots of a subject captured in the dead-center of the screen; the shot in question was showing the titular hotel with a high-angle camera-position and it felt as if the film had a wrench thrown into its gears causing it to stumble momentarily.
In the same way Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou’s dialog alienates it also stimulates because, in most scenarios, you’re forced to listen intuitively. By doing so, it’s as if you awaken the contemplative side of your brain because carefully monitoring body language and facial expressions won’t get you anywhere. Colin Farrell has become a go-to actor for Lanthimos for the reason that he can effectively cleanse himself of any humanity, and Nicole Kidman looks eerily similar to how she did in Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick’s last film) and plays similar beats in her matriarchal role. I can’t say I love Lanthimos’ detached aesthetic but I can say I fully admire his commitment to it and feel that it does possess exceptional potential, much of which shown in this film.
I do, however, believe that Lanthimos’s work better suits short films or medium-length (IE: 50 minutes) works more-so than feature-films that are nearly two hours long. The second half of The Killing of a Sacred Deer isn’t as engrossing as its first, nor does it have the same kind of elegance as the film intensifies and darker themes and situations start to emerge. During these moments, a lot of flab accrues in the form of inferior sequences that show the family’s suffering and odd, unexplained sexual relations between Steven and Anna and Martin and Kim. During this time, the film loses some of the momentum that worked to captivate me from the beginning, and it seems that novel experimentation such as tricky aerial shots that show how large the hospital was grew less and less prevalent as the narrative developed.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer has been suggested to personify the Greek story of Agamemnon and Iphigenia, where Iphigenia, the daughter of King Agamemnon, was sacrificed after killing a sacred deer, although the details of the story changes depending on the source text. Thematically, this film can be viewed as everything from the tough choices that come with parenthood to a slowburn tale of revenge that might, as a whole, be misplaced or shortsighted. It’s a film that you will strive to get although its elusive aura and disconnected ambiance prevents it from entirely being got. It’s something, I’ll say, and that’s better than nothing as far as stylistic films are concerned.
NOTE: As of this writing, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is available to stream on Tubi and Vudu, free of charge.
NOTE II: My review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer on my radio-show “Sleepless with Steve” on WONC 89.1FM:
Starring: Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan, Nicole Kidman, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, and Bill Camp. Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!