I have had one heck of a time getting to a theater to catch The Killing of a Sacred Deer. I featured it in my Ten Fourth-Quarter 2017 Films to be Excited About! column, but it took a while before it finally arrived within driving distance of my house. And then I was out of town or otherwise predisposed during the weekends and couldn’t get to the nearest theater (an hour away) to catch it. But I finally managed to do it, taking advantage of a rare Thursday off.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is another film from A24 Studios, one of the two most consistent and reliable movie studios in the business today (along with Marvel Studios. Pixar has fallen to a clear third, even taking the brilliant Coco into account.). This is the second film for A24 that has been written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, after 2016’s The Lobster. After seeing The Killing of a Sacred Deer, it is becoming clear that Lanthimos has a distinct and recognizable style all his own. What I’m not yet sure about is whether or not it’s deliberate.
Like The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a quirky science-fiction drama starting Colin Farrell. This is one of those films that’s rather difficult to discuss without spoilers, so I’ll sum it up by saying that Farrell plays cardiologist Steven Murphy, who makes a critical mistake for which he is forced to either atone or face dire consequences. It takes about ten or fifteen minutes longer than it should to get to the hook, but it’s a gripping, fascinating hook, once it arrives. Hang in there.
Consequences and atonement are unquestionably the themes of the film. In addition to working side by side with the always-great Nicole Kidman, Farrell plays opposite Barry Keoghan, who plays Martin, Murphy’s young protege. Keoghan gives a chilling performance as Martin morphs and shifts throughout the course of the narrative and more is revealed about his history and motivations. Farrell does well as he plays off of Keoghan and, in turn, Kidman performs admirably, as well, as her character of Anna reacts to her husband’s choice of actions. But, ultimately, everyone except for Keoghan is hampered by Lanthimos’s stubborn insistence upon leaving his own style in place, rather than allowing the film to grow naturally.
I say that because there are more similarities between this film and The Lobster than what I mentioned above. Like that film, the dialogue is stilted and often downright bizarre, with characters saying unimaginable things to each other given the natures of their relationships and/or the circumstances under which a given conversation is occurring. This is not the mistake of an inexperienced writer, either. It’s an artistic choice seemingly designed to unsettle the audience from the beginning of the film and set the tone (which the long, steady opening shot also accomplishes. I’ll allow you to discover that on your own.). To compound matters, when any particular character utters something too forward or unusual or even a total non-sequitur, the opposing character just rolls with it, as if it’s a typical conversation on the porch swing at Grandma’s house.
It doesn’t end there. Throughout the majority of the film, Lanthimos directs his cast to perform with as little emotion as possible. It’s not just in the dialogue that characters are unfazed by the disquieting behavior of the others, but in the performances, as well. In the back half of the movie, Farrell and Kidman get to emote to a degree, but it’s still far too restrained considering what is playing out on-screen. Keoghan is fortunate in the sense that this approach is logical for Martin, but the others in the cast aren’t so lucky.
So, if all of this was also the case in The Lobster, why didn’t it bother me it that film? Simple: it made sense for The Lobster. The Lobster was about a bunch of people who spent their lives having difficulty forming connections with other people. If they’re awkward, unsociable, or just don’t understand how to properly interact with others, those traits gel with their current spot in life. In Sacred Deer, we’re looking at a fully-formed, longstanding family unit with two very successful (on all fronts) adults at the helm. Those same traits just don’t work for these people.
If this is Lanthimos’s attempt to craft a cinematic image for himself, it will end up being a misguided one. His ideas for film premises are already distinctive enough. Sabotaging his own films by making all of his characters feel robotic and inhuman will do no favors for his own future. I was interested in this story from a broader perspective of caring about people in general but I felt no personal connection to it, at all.
I’m reminded of Wes Anderson. I have a hard time with his films because of the way he handles his characters and dialogue, presenting them in a distinctly non-realistic way. I tend to tune out quickly because I don’t believe a thing I see or hear. I know a lot of people love him (he’s my best friend’s favorite), but I just can’t connect. Lanthimos will be the same way if he’s not careful, with the difference being that, while his weird stories are good for me, unlike Anderson’s, they’re probably too over the top for many general audiences. And that will cause a problem if he can’t connect with them through narrative or character and dialogue. If he wants a long, successful career, he should focus on the work and not his own reputation.
I don’t love or hate The Killing of a Sacred Deer. I love the concept and the story. I’m mixed (at best) on the execution. This isn’t a film that will appeal to the typical moviegoer, but those who like strange and quirky storytelling may still want to give it a look, depending on how much my own personal issues with the film would bother them. Still, A24 has put out another film that’s an easy conversation piece and certainly unforgettable. As long as they keep doing that, I’ll keep showing up.
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