LFF 2017: The Killing of a Sacred Deer Review
More on BFI London Film Festival 2017
Usually when a filmmaker transitions from making movies in their native tongue to the English language, something special gets lost in the process - but Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is the rare case of a director whose deadpan black comic style works better in English. His 2015 film The Lobster, a surreal satire on society’s cult-like obsession with finding and maintaining loving relationships, slotted easily in to the lineage of Python-esque British comedies, despite being penned on the other side of the continent.
Whereas oddball, deadpan humour makes sense in Britain, moved across the Atlantic, the filmmaker’s detached style feels increasingly alien. No wonder his first US film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, sees him transition from black comedy to full blown psychological horror seamlessly, all while feeling of a piece with the funnier and less stomach churning works in his back catalogue. Although his cold, clinical and visually precise style is distinctive, it is really his approach to dialogue and heightened world building that makes Lanthimos such a distinctive auteur.
However, even though his characters still speak like aliens trying to pass themselves off as human, the fact they aren’t embedded in a more surreal, quasi-dystopian society makes this feel like the director’s first film that could be described as openly cruel. The lack of a wider narrative allegory that would justify their suffering, as showcased in both Dogtooth and The Lobster, only reinforces this fact; they are quirky creations, yet are portrayed with the same callous disregard as Michael Haneke treats the central family in Funny Games, even though he has no critique to back up their continuous punishment. Even when it’s at its blackly comic best, it can’t help but feel uncompromisingly bleak - and Lanthimos’ characteristically icy detachment stops you from ever caring about the fate of anybody onscreen, even if the film is compellingly watchable and exquisitely intense throughout.
Returning for his second outing with Lanthimos’ after a masterful lead turn in The Lobster, Colin Farrell stars as Dr Steven Murphy, a cardiovascular surgeon who has been mentoring 16 year-old Martin (Barry Keoghan), ever since his father died in a car crash. However, this friendship soon begins crossing over in to his peaceful family life; Martin is invited over to his family home by Steven’s wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), where he instantly befriends Steven’s 12 year-old son (Sunny Sulijian), and starts a semi-flirtatious relationship with his daughter (Raffey Cassidy), who quickly develops feelings for him. As the unsettling, disorienting score heavily signposts, this is not the set-up for domestic bliss, Martin one day unexpectedly lays out a supernatural proposition that will permanently put an end to the family’s happiness.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is an incredibly easy film to admire. Lanthimos has an intuitive sense of directorial precision, knowing how to escalate tension in even the most mundane of scenes and, of course, an already proven ability (along with recurrent co-screenwriter Efthymis Filippou) to generate laughs from incredibly dull dialogue exchanges, on topics ranging from water resistant watches to homemade lemonade. He manages to get every member of his ensemble cast to tune in to the film’s offbeat register, with even the youngest performers seamlessly reading dialogue with the same distinctive monotone affectations - there is never a single person onscreen who isn’t wholly committed to flesh out the director’s disturbing vision in the manner it was intended.
However, one performer shines above them all, and that is Barry Keoghan, whose deliriously dark supporting role feels all the more disturbing because of how unusual it is; when he outlines the “rules” Steven has to follow to guarantee for his family’s safety, he does so with a nervous, panicked dialogue rhythm, not the calm and collected exposition we’d expect from a cinematic psychopath. It couldn’t be more of a contrast from his charming breakthrough performance in Dunkirk earlier this year, feeling more akin to Ezra Miller's revelatory performance in We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Furthermore, despite being easy to admire for technical bravura, uniformly excellent performances and a breathtakingly bleak punch to the nose of narrative convention, the film’s cold detachment makes it near impossible to actually love. Divorced from being an out-and-out comedy, the fact the characters are still written as comic constructs (with the exception of Martin) ensures the horrors that unfold in their lives have no long lasting effect. It’s a minor miracle that Lanthimos still manages to generate tension throughout, considering the lack of character investment - yet I was still left wishing he’d played more to his black comic strengths.
He’s already made acclaimed works of surrealist comedy utilising darker subject matter, but here, the comedy provokes mere nervous laughter, that frequently drains the tension from a more disturbing and more openly horror inflected narrative. In hindsight, I keep thinking back to individually funny comedic moments that would have easily slotted in to a film like The Lobster (Steven force-feeding donuts to his son, or the sure to be controversial scene where he confesses his “darkest secret”), that here feel like jigsaw pieces being forced in to the wrong piece of the puzzle.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is the cross between Sophie’s Choice and Funny Games that you never knew you wanted. However, the change of genres means the director’s stylistic detachment has now become an issue for the first time- even though it’s continuously intense and provocative, the lack of characters worth caring about means the horror unfolding onscreen fails to hit as hard as it has been intended to.