There are moments in film where you aren't sure if you are supposed to laugh or gasp. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is one film built entirely around this sentiment.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos is known for his off-kilter, slightly whimsical, yet deeply disturbing films. They seem to take the premise of normal life and add in something abnormal, almost magical. This magical element is something that causes struggle, not reprieve. In many ways, the magical element seems so unreal that the audience questions whether or not to take it seriously. This creates a psychological terror in not only the characters onscreen as they deal with an invisible enemy, but the audience as well. We’re not ever really sure if it’s just a fantastical ruse that will be revealed at the end as a gag played upon us, or if we’re supposed to take the surreal as real. Like his previous films Lanthimos’ latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is much of the same.
In this latest film, Lanthimos collaborates with Colin Farrell who also starred in his last picture (The Lobster). In this new film, Farrell plays Steven Murphy, a wealthy heart surgeon with wife and two children. Steven befriends Martin, the teenage son of a man who died as a result of an error made during open heart surgery. In many ways, Steven feels sorry for Martin and guilty for the death of his father, even though Steven will never admit it was his fault. When Steven’s children both become ill with a strange disorder, Martin confides to Steven that it is meant as a punishment. Being the experienced medical professional that he is, Steven dismisses Martin’s explanation. He becomes desperate to find a cure, but no amount of testing or expert opinion can provide an answer. Ultimately, Steven is faced with the decision to believe Martin and deal with the consequences, or else potentially lose everything except his dignity.
This film is meant to be a comedy. A very dark, sadistic comedy. There are certainly elements that can be taken as comedic, especially towards the end of the film. However, the narrative doesn’t put enough distance between the disturbing events playing off onscreen and the audience’s emotions. This makes the film more difficult to watch than I think it was meant to be. The comedic elements aren’t effective enough, and the film’s tone is too bleak to be overlooked.
Part of the reason the film isn’t as funny as it should have been is the way that it is made. The entire production feels very structured and stiff. As in most of his films, Lanthimos’ characters speak in a very formal, matter-of-fact way. This makes the dialogue very direct, which helps to speed up the film and the details needed to comprehend the plot are clearly laid out. However, the funny way that the characters speak doesn’t come across as funny due to the topics they are discussing. In Lanthimos’ previous films, there was enough ridiculousness in the premise for the stilted dialogue to accent the tone, rather than detract from it. Here, the monotonous deliveries happen to assist the films’ more tragic tendencies rather than the comedic ones.
But often what the characters say and what they mean are two different things. In this regard, the film at least touches on realistic human behavior. They dispense with small talk and pleasantries, but deep down there are emotional conflicts that have not been resolved. Only a few times do these feelings boil to the surface, adding to the tension of the film as it unfolds. Thankfully, both Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell provide performances which capture the subtleties that their roles require. Nevertheless, the dialogue is still monotonous and unnatural even with the excellent acting. This, if anything, makes the film feel fake because its tricks aren’t hiding beneath the surface. In essence, the audience sees how the puppeteer is pulling the strings to make us squirm in our seats, rather than having that feeling develop naturally through engagement with the film.
Lanthimos’ direction and the visual presentation also help to structure the film in a very particular way. From a directing perspective, the film is very patient and deliberate. The entire film seems like an homage to Kubrick, with various shots zooming slowly into and out of the characters framed in brilliant landscapes. The most immediate technique you’ll notice is how close Lanthimos brings his camera into his character's faces. During dialogue, even if there are multiple characters having a conversation, the film is almost always up close to a face. Each shot is completely devoted towards a singular character or set of characters, rather than a setting or group.
The film’s cinematography often contrasts bright lights with darkness and shadows. The color palette is very white, with bright colors toned down to accent the film’s dark tone. The use of bright lights and an obsession with white makes the picture seem more sterile, instead of whimsical or energetic. Often the camera is looking into or out of a window, and pairing the screen’s borders with architectural components helps to frame everything nicely. Through shadows and lense flares, the picture is never comfortable, even when it is serene or beautiful. The film is purpose-built to make the audience uncomfortable. Unfortunately, a nervous laugh is not an easy one.
Lanthimos’ locked-on focus can be seen in the way that he picks and chooses what the audience sees and does not see in order to tell the story in as direct a way as possible. He doesn’t want to have any distractions or diversions, everything has a purpose. For example, in an early scene there is discussion by several characters about watches, and yet the film never shows us a detailed shot of what they are discussing. Later on, Martin is eating spaghetti and begins to talk about the way he eats spaghetti. We get a close up shot of the food and all the associated sounds and textures. Since the film is so clean and patterned leading up to this moment, this shot stands out and really demands your attention. Given the concerning topic of the conversation during this scene, it all works to create a deeply unsettling and haunting experience.
Once the film ends you’ll notice that Killing of a Sacred Deer tells the familiar story about tragedy befalling on rich white people where at least one of them deserves it. Despite all of the effort made by the filmmakers to create a film that goes out of its way to get inside your mind, the premise ends up being something that’s already there. All of this makes Killing of a Sacred Deer a polarizing film. On one hand, it is really well done and features a lot of great talent who put in some quality work. But on the other hand, many of the film’s techniques are either ineffective or go too far. The film’s audacious premise is also at odds with its efforts to be taken as tongue in cheek. How much you can appreciate the film ultimately depends on how much of the hands-on filmmaking you can tolerate.