If you know me, you know that Stanley Kubrick is, in all likelihood, my favorite filmmaker of all time. Usually anyone with even an iota of knowledge about film history will say the same, but there’s no denying that Kubrick had an infatuation with the grotesque and astonishingly found a way to glorify it – drawing audiences in rather than scaring them off. Director/auteur Yorgos Lanthimos emerges in this same vein as he slowly makes a name for himself; he follows up the success of his U.S. debut The Lobster (2015) with a hauntingly dark and absurdist story of a family, whose lifestyle is as sterile as a hospital room, slowly shedding their skin to reveal just how volatile they are.
I’m known to get carried away with things from time to time, and this is certainly the case with the first two minutes of The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). In Kubrick fashion, Lanthimos opens his film with a black screen and overture, blasting Franz Schubert’s grand symphony “Stabat Mater D383: I. Jesus Christus schwebt am Kreuzel”. We then cut to an exposed heart, soon to be operated upon on a surgeon’s table, as it pumps and pulsates almost too naturally while the camera dollies out to reveal a surgical theater. It’s an incredible image to showcase the fragility of human life and what it means to have someone’s life in one’s hands – a trope that is explored throughout the film. At the center of the story is Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a skilled cardiologist with, at face value, the perfect life. He lives with his wife and skilled doctor Anna (Nicole Kidman), and their two children Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). Soon, however, the story starts to make viewers ask questions regarding Steven’s relationship with a young adult named Martin (Barry Keoghan, of recent Dunkirk (2017) fame). Steven and Martin meet at a diner on occasion, and Martin will sometimes visit Steven at the hospital when he is on duty. Steven seems to give Martin the benefit of the doubt, yet when he clearly lies and tells co-workers that Martin is a friend of his daughter’s from school, we trust Steven due to his status as a renowned cardiologist with an untarnished reputation. This soon comes crashing down when Martin invites Steven to his house and blatantly encourages him to make sexual advances on his mother (a nearly unrecognizable Alicia Silverstone), who is clearly doing the same. When Martin doesn’t cooperate with Steven’s decision to not continue seeing him, Martin gives Steven an ultimatum of biblical proportions that shatters Steven’s blissful and sterile lifestyle.
In Kubrick fashion, director Lanthimos does not waste time with mundane questions of logic and instead plays the tension like a fiddle as audiences are given a front row seat to the unraveling of Steven’s life – and his family’s. Farrell is a ticking bomb for the two hour duration and while there are moments where he breaks and cuts the tension for maybe a minute, Lanthimos wastes little time in getting back to to the pressure coming down on Steven’s family. Farrell, for lack of a better word, is incredible. Adding Nicole Kidman to the mix only amplifies the intensity and gravity of their situation as she all but reprises her role from Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Watching Kidman and Farrell chew up scenery together makes what could be a slow and cold movie beat on as it gradually draws towards a cold resolution. Not that Oscars matter and you should like whatever you find appealing without the validation of the Academy, but I would love to see both of these talents receive some sort of recognition when Awards Season rolls around in the coming months. Like I said, however, their recognition or lack thereof will not change my opinion on these two performances. Barry Keoghan delivers an eerie and unnerving take on a disturbed young man’s twisted approach to finding a father figure. He makes you as uncomfortable as Steven is when he realizes he bit off more than he can chew by keeping in touch with Martin. There’s a guilt to Steven’s relationship with Martin, and Farrell plays that guilt beautifully as he is morally compromised on whether to help this teenager or his family.
If you have seen Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, Mother! (2017), then you will undoubtedly draw parallels between the vagueness and dark tone that both directors attempt to capture. What I enjoy about The Killing of a Sacred Deer vs. Mother! is its overall precision. Where Mother! serves as one giant metaphor, open completely to interpretation, Sacred Deer gives you a cut and dry narrative as black and white as the ink and paper it was written on. Lanthimos, of course, throws some logic out the window in the fashion of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997); but in logic’s stead, Lanthimos provides an uncompromising, out-of-control play on morality where there are no easy decisions to be made. Backed by brilliantly simple camerawork and astonishingly unnerving sound mixing, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is as entertaining a movie as it is unforgivingly devastating.
If you have seen Mother! but left the theater a bit dissatisfied, this may be the movie to lick your wound. Yorgos Lanthimos, of Athens descent, is slowly making a name for himself in American filmmaking. While every director thinks they can outshine the great Stanley Kubrick, Lanthimos pays appropriate homage to his later works such as The Shining (1980) and Eyes Wide Shut without coming off as the “next sensation” in grotesquerie. Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, and Barry Keoghan give chilling performances and the horror of what transpires lingers not only with these characters, but with audiences as well when they leave the theater. This is a film that makes moviegoing experiences worthwhile in the same vein as Get Out (2016), and I highly recommend seeing it if you are trying to get a head start on contenders for Awards Season.