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The rich vein of unsettling darkness and psychological unease that ripples like a treacherous underground stream beneath the absurdist humor of Yorgos Lanthimos’ work becomes a brooding requiem of domestic horror in his masterfully realized fifth feature, The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Reaching back to classical Greek tragedy for inspiration, this hypnotic tale of guilt and retribution provides an even more riveting role for Colin Farrell after his collaboration on the director’s English-language debut, The Lobster. He’s flanked by a never-better Nicole Kidman and a performance of chilling effectiveness from emerging Irish talent Barry Keoghan in a thriller that frequently invites comparison to vintage Polanski.
Set for U.S. release Nov. 3 through A24, which steered The Lobster to perform beyond expectations for such a uniquely strange movie, the new film’s grim scenario of a family under dire threat will make it hard for some to watch. But the impressive rigor of its craft, the skillfully subdued intensity of the acting and the startling originality of the story will make the film unmissable for anyone who cares about bold filmmaking.
Release date: Nov 03, 2017
The movie begins with a solemn blast of a Schubert Stabat Mater, and a graphic close-up of the final stages of open-heart surgery, before cutting to cardiologist Steven Murphy (Farrell) and his anesthesiologist and friend Matthew (Bill Camp) walking the Cincinnati hospital corridor discussing wristwatches. The conversation might be innocuous, even banal, but the distance of the shot, the deliberate pace of the reverse camera movement and the subtle scrutiny of the composition signal an insidious underlying mood.
Those opening images also establish the approach throughout of gifted cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis — he brings a penetrating gaze that misses nothing, with zooms so smooth and graceful they suggest unblinking stillness, and odd angles both low and high that constantly seem to question the behavior we’re witnessing.
Lanthimos and regular screenwriting partner Efthimis Filippou drop us into a diner appointment between Steven and 16-year-old Martin (Keoghan), revealing the nature of their relationship only gradually. The medic is patient and kind with the boy, though Farrell conveys a mild cautiousness beneath Steven’s nurturing demeanor, hinting from the start that he’s aware of some ill-defined but disquieting intention behind Martin’s eyes and his guileless smile.
It emerges that Steven has said nothing of his frequent meetings with Martin to his ophthalmologist wife Anna (Kidman), or their children, 14-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and preteen Bob (Sunny Suljic). He also lies casually to Matthew when Martin drops by the hospital unexpectedly, introducing him as a school friend of his daughter’s.
Family meals at the Murphys’ dinner table set a scene of domestic harmony and affection couched in an almost unnatural climate of mutual respect. There’s a mesmerizing glacial quality to the movie, both before and after the life-or-death stakes are raised. And as always with Lanthimos, a strain of weirdness percolates, for instance when Anna introduces the evening’s sexual agenda with the question, “General anesthetic?” before draping herself in an out-cold pose across the matrimonial bed.
The film’s title clues us into what’s coming with its reference to Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, which dramatized the dilemma of Agamemnon when his offense to Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, prompted her to demand that he sacrifice his eldest daughter.
Steven’s perceived crime against Martin is that the boy’s father died at 46 on his operating table, supposedly as a result of cardiac arrhythmia. At first, Martin keeps his rancor under wraps and is exceedingly pleasant when he’s invited to meet Steven’s family in their spacious home in the wealthy suburbs. But when Steven is forced to accept a reciprocal invitation to dine at Martin’s far more humble residence, the boy’s transparent attempt to set him up with his all-too-eager widowed mother (Alicia Silverstone) shows his disregard for the doctor’s marriage and family.
Silverstone is a delight in her single scene, scaring Steven off with her aggressive play for him, and then returning, in a last-ditch effort, to the dessert he earlier declined. Desperate seduction lines don’t get much funnier than, “You’re not leaving until you try my tart!”
With Martin showing up unannounced at the hospital with increasing frequency, and cozying up to Kim, who lies about their encounters, Steven’s carefulness around him finally dissolves during their next meeting. Around the time Bob starts showing signs of an unexplained neurological disorder, an unnerved Steven demands an explanation for Martin’s strange behavior. With a cold composure from Keoghan that makes his words even more distressing, the boy informs Steven that having killed his father, he now must take the life of one of his own family. If not, all three of them will get sick and die.
Mirroring the way that pivotal scene plays out, the escalating horror as the action continues is magnified in its power by being so muted. Lanthimos and sound designer Johnnie Burn (whose work on Jonathan Glazer’s spellbinding Under the Skin was similarly essential to the movie’s hold) layer in eclectic music choices, from jagged punk to portentous classical to the abstract strings and percussion pieces of Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina and the haunted sounds of Gyorgy Ligeti, a favorite of Stanley Kubrick’s.
The overriding directive for the performers, however, appears to have been to hold back, favoring a calm, affectless delivery wherever possible. This is a movie that closes its grip on our fears by infinitesimal degrees, demonstrating that bone-deep, tightly clamped anxiety can be scarier than screaming terror.
The characterization of Keoghan (upcoming in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk) is all the more effective for Martin being so matter-of-fact about his sinister pronouncements. And the script’s refusal to speculate on whether his power over the Murphys is physical or wielded simply by force of will and psychological susceptibility heightens the intrigue. The sense of menace simultaneously pulling us in and pushing us away is even more potent here than in The Lobster.
The performances across the board are expertly gauged demonstrations of restraint under extreme duress. That applies particularly as the screws are tightened and Anna starts examining Steven for legitimate blame, the ailing Kim and Bob begin getting inside each other’s heads, and Martin becomes a brutalized prisoner, never surrendering the upper hand. While the entire cast is excellent, Farrell, sporting a heavy beard, brings enormous gravitas to the central role of a man whose air of professional remove carries over into his private persona, raising questions about his unfeeling nature and willingness to consider culpability.
As a horrific climactic scene involving a hunting rifle approaches, Bakatakis’ lighting transforms the family home from airy open spaces to gloomy, almost Gothic stairwells and shadow-stained walls, while Lanthimos guides us with supreme control toward a wordless coda, its confronting malevolence lingering after the end credits roll. The Greek director here further cements his position among the world’s most interesting contemporary filmmakers, stoking anticipation for his next English-language feature, The Favourite, which has already wrapped principal photography, with Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman.
Production companies: Element Pictures, in association with Limp
Distributor: A24 (11/3)
Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Alicia Silverstone, Bill Camp
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenwriters: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthimis Filippou
Producers: Ed Guiney, Yorgos Lanthimos
Executive producers: Andrew Lowe, Daniel Battsek, Sam Lavender, David Kosse, Nicki Hattingh, Amit Pandya, Anne Sheehan, Peter Watson, Marie-Gabrielle Stewart
Director of photography: Thimios Bakatakis
Production designer: Jade Healy
Costume designer: Nancy Steiner
Editor: Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Sound designer: Johnnie Burn
Casting: Francine Maisler
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: HanWay Films
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