Killing of a Sacred Deer: Yorgos Lanthimos’ Awkward Atmospheric Revenge Film
Review by Aaron Haughton
Yorgos Lanthimos first exploded on the scene with his film Dogtooth and has been flooring critics with his unique brand of dry-humored and awkward absurdism. Last year’s effort The Lobster (also featuring Colin Farrell) was a highly praised oddball rom-com with a premise that sounded like it couldn’t fail, but left many moviegoers divided. The same will be evident with his latest film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, an ominous and brooding, albeit bizarre, revenge thriller of horrific proportions.
Colin Farrell plays Dr. Steven Murphy, a renowned cardiovascular surgeon with a troubled past. He lives in a fairly immaculate household with his ophthalmologist wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), and their two exemplary children, 12-year-old Bob (Sunny Suljic) and 14-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy). However, lurking in Steven’s idyllic suburban existence is Martin (Barry Keoghan), a fatherless teen who Steven has taken under his wing. As Martin embeds himself deeper into Steven’s family in increasingly unsettling ways, the full scope of his intent becomes menacingly clear.
This film feels like Lanthimos’ ode to Kubrick. Visually, technically (especially through the balanced and centered compositions) and atmospherically, it feels comparative to The Shining, in that Lanthimos chooses to use long tracking shots through winding hallways looking down on our characters, often times reenforcing and embodying looming fate — all our characters have found themselves into a situation in which there is no escaping, so it’s only natural for fate to hang in waiting. However, having Kidman in the film with a few scenes in which she’s getting ready in a mirror, hair pulled up in a ponytail, little curling ringlets on each side, certainly does bring to mind a late Kubrick masterwork as well.
The cinematography is by and large the best that Thimios Bakatakis and Yorgos Lanthimos have achieved through their collaborations (Kinetta, Dogtooth, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer). The locations (another parallel to The Shining) consist of lavish ballrooms and beautiful homes, all of which are absolutely stunning and shot in a ways that enhance their allure. The camera is always moving, panning, and tracking in engaging ways, which helps entice you through the overall dim plot. This and the use of score, which consists of unsettling and ominous tones, strings and screeches, create the film’s true crowning achievement: its atmosphere. However, for all the atmosphere the film serves up, it's never enough to make the characters or their ludicrous circumstances feel in any way believable or fully dimensional.
From a technical standpoint, the film is pretty flawless, but narratively speaking, it’s a bit uninteresting. The problem with film is that a lot of the narrative’s mystery and twists can be easily pieced together and spotted and figured before they ever happen. So, you spend a good bit of time waiting for the film to catch up to you, and you spend a great deal of time waiting for the film to do anything at all really. Once the film's rules are clearly spelled out, which comes at around the halfway point, it's just a matter of waiting and hoping that that the film delivers on the grotesque. If you’re anything like me, by the time the film reaches its absurd climax, it will give you a few uncomfortable chuckles and you will be ready for it to wrap up.
The film honestly comes across like Lanthimos is preying on the normal conventions of horror/thriller/comedy in ways that intentionally make you feel awkward and uncomfortable just for the sake of watching you squirm in your chair. That's basically the film in a broad stroke nutshell. Luckily, the performances — all of which are phenomenal, particularly Keoghan, who nails the uneasy creepy vibe with effortless force — and the cinematography are enough to keep you engaged as the film clumsily bounds from plot point to plot point.
It’s a film that’s definitely not for everyone, which is (and probably always will be) true with any of Lanthimos’ films, which feel specifically engineered for a select absurdist niche of moviegoers. In comparison to The Lobster, I think it’s a more enjoyable film, but still leaves much more to be desired. The absurdist elements are particularly enjoyable, but may even strike points where the audience doesn’t know how to react (cringe in horror or laugh hysterically). If you’re up for a preposterous adventure of psychological horror and revenge with Kubrick flourishes and fantastic performances, I’d say to give it a day in court, but if at all possible, go in with low expectations to allow the film to potentially do something for you.
Rating: 2.5 bleeding eyes out of 5.
What do you think? Did you enjoy the film? Did it deliver the ending you wanted? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!