Last year, a curious thing about Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster was its flat, monotone dialogue. The characters spoke plainly, at times hilarious so, and it shaped the rest of the film and imprinted a style similar to Wes Anderson. While Anderson presents characters with wild eccentricities, Lanthimos’ characters are, simply put, mundane in comparison. For The Lobster, this style came off as odd but it worked well with the themes and humor. It made their matter-of-fact statements that much more laughable.
Lanthimos continues this style with bizarre results in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. While The Lobster is an off-beat, dry comedy, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a slow-burn psychological thriller. Whereas a comedy might welcome deadpan humor, a psychological thriller might not take so kindly to it. Yet, even with the odd dialogue style intact, Lanthimos provides a masterfully crafted story, rife with tension, intriguing themes, and empathetic characters. It certainly isn’t a movie for everyone but die-hard cinephiles, horror, and psychological thriller lovers, or anyone who loves an offbeat movie will enjoy it.
Directed and written by Yorgos Lanthimos, The Killing of Sacred Deer is about Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell), a surgeon who seems to have it all, a great career and a beautiful wife and family. When he befriends a teenage boy, things take a sinister turn and he’s forced to make an unthinkable choice.
When channeling a story, Lanthimos seems to like starting with compelling concepts and build from there. In The Lobster, Lanthimos targets relationships and how society looks down on people who are single. He creates an odd and intriguing world where single people are turned into animals if they don’t find a mate. In the same vein, The Killing of a Sacred Deer starts with a boy presenting Stephen Murphy with an impossible choice. His son, daughter, and wife will all grow ill, lose their ability to walk, their desire to eat, and eventually, start bleeding from the eyes before they die. If Murphy kills one of them, the other two will live.
These starting places act as a clever hook to his films, refusing to let the audience go until the last shot. And they’re also a justifier. If a story doesn’t have a core concept, something unique to set it apart, it’s difficult for an audience to justify watching it. We all know the regurgitated mess Hollywood is in right now. In contrast, his unique ideas help not only justify anyone wanting to watch the story unfold but feeds the story as well.
The story is also, frankly, very weird. Its odd representation of human behavior is hard to accept only because it doesn’t feel natural. The core concepts are also difficult because there’s no scientific or rational explanation why they happen. They just do. There is no explanation on why Stephen Murphy’s family falls ill. Even within the story, the doctors are confounded. Yet, somehow, Lanthimos convinces the audience none of that matters. The only thing that matters is the subtext underneath, namely, the morality of revenge. The complex relationship between Murphy and Martin opens up a can of worms of guilt, remorse, and revenge that’ll make you think well beyond the credits.
Lanthimos’ writing is excellent. Within Deer, he crafts solid three-dimensional characters, creates great pacing, and slowly builds the tension over time until its almost unbearable. While the writing is certainly a slow burn experience, the hook keeps your attention, making you want to know what is going to happen next.
Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis (The Lobster) returns and while his work on The Lobster was spectacular, the way he told the story in The Killing of the Sacred Deer is by far superior. Stanley Kubrick’s work came to mind especially with the use of color, the long takes, and the unconventional angles. Many of his shots break from traditional norms and help exude an unsettling feeling like something is amiss. It’s all brilliant and perfectly executed.
The acting here is also something quite special. Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman are outstanding, capable of pulling off some rather difficult, tense, and awkward scenes with great aplomb. However, the true star of the movie is up-and-comer Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk). He plays Martin, the complex and sinister teenage boy causing the illness to take place. Keoghan does such a great job portraying a quirky, bizarre, and messed up kid. At the same time, as the story progresses you find out more about his relationship with Murphy and it creates a new layer of complexity. It’s unexpected but makes the story all the better for it.
Even from a purely psychological thriller standpoint, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is one of the tensest, knuckle-biting films of the year. Take away the monotone dialogue and some of its quirky antics and you have a thriller which borders on horror. Fans of this genre would be remiss to ignore this film because of its more unconventional storytelling methods. At its core, the film excels at creating a creepy and strange experience.
The most puzzling piece of the film is, again, how the characters speak to one another. In the first half of the film, the dialogue is flat, monotone, almost lifeless but as the tension builds and the story progresses, that vanishes when the actors are required to show more emotion and humanity. Perhaps Lanthimos is trying to convey a boring, repetitive, and dull life through the dialogue until the conflict builds and the characters no longer live a boring life. That’s at least one interpretation. Regardless, it felt like this artistic style got in the way of the story at times, working against it rather than assisting it.
Still, of the directors you should be keeping an eye on, Lanthimos should be near the top of the list. He’s continuing to show incredible promise as a storyteller and filmmaker. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is not for everyone. Certain people just won’t get it or if anything, will be turned off by the eccentric storytelling but anyone who can push past the oddities will find a truly worthwhile film.
Photos courtesy of: A24