(2017, Yorgos Lanthimos)
[4 out of 5 stars]
Director Lanthimos has fashioned himself his own cinematic universe. Each film has its own set of bizarre rules. His last film, the Lobster, involved people being turned into animals if they don't find a spouse. The rules are different with each film but they exist as continuations of the same perplexing reality. His actors speak and behave as if they are always being watched. They are stiffly polite and speak in monotone. One half-expects a grand piano to drop over their head if they go off-script.
They are also shot as if being monitored by an outside presence. Low angle close-ups are employed when they are talking next to someone, as if that person was wearing a hidden camera on their jacket. The wide angle interior shots capture the entire room (like in a surveillance camera) with the actors perfectly blocked inside the set. The score is screechy and foreboding which contrast the abnormally quiet scenes. There is almost no foley at all. There's a scene where the family are having a barbecue and there is no sizzle to be heard from the grill. This is a movie so cold that natural sounds are sucked right out of the mix.
Occasionally the dialogue is unnerving but still delivered matter-of-factly like a couple announcing in the middle of a cocktail conversation that their daughter has just started menstruating or utter something that mirrors our (relatively) normal world but with a menacing undertone. "Don't forget to pick up some morphine for the children", Nicole Kidman says to her husband as if she was asking him to get some milk.
All these elements add to the uncanny atmosphere where everything is precise to the point of unbalance. And this disequilibrium is what drives the story forward. It is a story as ancient as time: a death for a death. Martin (played by a chilling Barry Keoghan) befriends Steven (Colin Farrell) who was the surgeon responsible for his father's death. In the beginning, their relationship appears pleasant. We see Steven giving Martin a new wristwatch and he visits him regularly at the hospital where he works. Things take a turn for the worse when Steven's children become paralysed from the waist down. The doctors find nothing wrong medically and they are all confounded until Martin reveals to Steven that this is the first symptom of a mysterious disease that will not go away unless Steven kills his wife or one of his children. An eye for an eye.
It's Lanthimos' own twisted take on the Greek tragedy and spills just as much blood. He takes away the high drama and replaces it with ice-cold modernity. The title recalls the Greek myth of Iphigenia who was sacrificed to appease Artemis after Iphigenia's father, Agamemnon, accidentally kills a sacred deer belonging to the goddess. Greek tragedies are populated with gruesome images of revenge. Clytemnestra welcoming her husband back from war by entangling him in a cloth net and stabbing him in the bath. Thyestes being fed his own sons by his brother during a feast and my personal favourite, Prometheus' liver growing again and again and eaten by an eagle for all eternity.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer isn't short of these violent images that fixes itself in the mind. The sense that the characters are always being watched by an unseen presence could be a contemporary take of the always watching Greek gods, ready to punish those who go against their strange rules and rituals. You can look back at any of Lanthimos films and find characters who behave as if possessed by a sadistic divine.
This is his most chilling work yet. Though his signature absurdist black comedy can still be found here, especially in the first hour when the character's odd behaviour instigate uncomfortable chuckles, it becomes extremely bleak by the second half. He has evolved over the years as a director who crafts increasingly disturbing images you want to look away from but are paralysingly transfixed to.