There’s a point where unnervingly harsh and disturbingly irrational movies become more trouble than they’re worth. This groaner is two hours of jeopardy to children and perversely cruel storytelling that never rewarded this viewer. And director Yorgos Lanthimos chooses a style of performance and presentation that all but bypasses recognizable human values. I hold the film no particular grudge. It may be a masterpiece, but if I didn’t need to review it, I wouldn’t have stuck it out to the end.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
2017 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 121 min. / Street Date January 23, 2018 / 24.99
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Sulgic, Alicia Silverstone.
Cinematography: Thimios Bakatakis
Film Editor: Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Written by Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou
Produced by Ed Guiney, Yorgos Lanthimos
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
A swanky surgeon named Stephen (Colin Farrell), introduced with an image of a beating heart during an operation, clearly has something going on with a unnaturally polite and proper young man, Martin (Barry Keoghan of Dunkirk). Stephen leads an antiseptic existence in an unnaturally spotless house with his perfect opthamologist wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and two children, the talented Kim (Raffey Cassidy of Tomorrowland) and his longhaired younger son Bob (Sunny Sulgic). The kids are pampered and quite, almost as if sedated. Nobody in the family raises their voice. In other words, we’re in bizarre movie territory. Judging by the creepy mood, nothing good is going to happen. What does happen is dark, unpleasant and irrational.
I consider myself fairly tolerant of film story content. When the only thing going is an unconvincing focus on harm to children, I am not a happy camper.
At about forty quizzical minutes into Deer the annoying Martin suddenly transforms into a psychotic avenger of a non-crime. Is he a young madman or some kind of allegorical spirit? The film’s title suggests a cosmic reckoning, but what we’re given is a revenge contract that only makes sense if we accept Martin’s having supernatural powers. Stephen and Anna resist until the pressure opens fissures in their marriage. By the finish crimes are taking place that simply make no sense, as if the couple were carrying out a pact with God. Since I never felt compelled to buy into the picture’s premise, I wasn’t carried along with the tide of morbid negativity. Apparently many viewers are.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is an off-putting ordeal from the get-go. That’s its entire reason for being. The characters speak in an even cadence in monotones drained of expression, as if they were Pod People no longer needing to pretend to be human. The writers give them huge volumes of irrelevant dialogue to speak. Martin talks about body hair and eating spaghetti, and when Colin Farrell’s surgeon wants to make personal contact with his son, he comes up with an elaborate monologue about masturbating his own father. The children’s dialogues are completely stylized, or more accurately, unbelievably mature and precise. Everything is muted, repressed. There appears to be no soundtrack score but scenes frequently begin with ominous drum rolls. Stephen stares in composed tension throughout traumatic scenes that would have any rational human calling for help from the cops, mama, or The Almighty. Anna is made of steel but the tension shows through her pursed lips and anguished eyes. A modern woman ready to defend her chi-chi homestead come Hell and High Water, she coldly accepts her husband’s infidelity as long as she can. She wisely sees through Martin’s lies about Stephen’s relationship with Martin’s mother (Alicia Silverstone), yet later subscribes to the notion that her family has to keep its side of a false bargain with Martin’s potential demon avenger.
In a ‘normal’ story, Martin would be using his affair with Stephen as blackmail. He’s essentially pulling the same perverse sex stunt as do the sex predators in twisted dramas like Masumura’s Manji. But Martin’s blackmail is different. In one very dubious scene Martin seemingly transforms into a fast-talking Mephistopheles, to inform Stephen of his cosmic power play — for a death that was supposedly Stephen’s responsibility, Martin demands a payback death, of someone in Stephen’s family. Young Bob and Kim fall under a spell worthy of a horror curse: they become paralyzed, for no reason. Martin says that soon after they start bleeding from the eyes, they will die. These things happen, without Martin doing any poisoning or (it seems) hypnotic suggestion — his crazy ‘predictions’ simply begin to come true. Stephen’s colleagues use every medical test to figure out what’s going on, and simply send the children home.
Deer is rightly described as a horror movie of the ‘unknown.’ Stephen is sufficiently hubristic to have some relationship to Dr. Genessier of Les yeux sans visage, except that he seems an honest man who knows himself well. From what we see, I don’t feel that Stephen is at all responsible for the ‘murder’ of which Martin accuses him. That’s what his anesthesiologist buddy says, but he’s an unreliable source of information, telling Anna whatever she wants to hear. Stephen’s makeup also has a flicker of a noted mad doctor, Bernard Hitchcock: his sex life with Anna centers around a game in which she pretends to be under an anaesthetic, unconscious. None of this contribues any more than do the sex scenes conjured up to give Deer some ‘hot’ content. Everyone’s quiet and polite in this movie but all interpersonal business seems to be a negotiation. To get information from Stephen’s anesthesiologist ‘friend,’ Anna must volunteer to follow through on an indecent proposal he had made to her a few years before.
Lanthimos shoots the vast, untouched house and the empty, spotless hospital corridors with endistancing wide-angle trucking shots. The action seems to be happening underwater, or in imitation of the general dream-vibe of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Exteriors are studies in stasis. Stephen’s car is always alone on the immaculate upscale residential streets. No other humans are visible. It’s yet another factor that made me resist the movie’s frustrating premise.
It’s hard to judge most of the acting, what with Farrell directed to channel the soul of a bearded mannequin, and the kids mouthing overly precocious, insightful dialogue. Only Nicole Kidman projects a human being trapped in this nightmare, doing her best to suppress any and all human emotionalism. Technically the movie is ultra-slick. I readily admit that director Lanthimos maintains an even strain when it comes to a consistent tone. Yet for more than an hour I wished that the movie would turn out to be a short subject, and just end already.
I checked some respected reviewers and haven’t found anybody with a theory of what it’s all about, so I don’t feel too stupid when I throw my hands up in defeat: Deer is a mechanical, minimalist exercise in torment for the audience. I’ve already heard that some consider the whole enterprise to be a stealth comedy, that some audiences find it perversely funny. I’m glad somebody had a good time: it’s just a movie, after all. And it may be performing a service, giving misanthropes an outlet for energy they might otherwise use to pull the wings off innocent flies.
Lionsgate’s Blu-ray of The Killing of a Sacred Deer is an excellent encoding of a show with clinically precise cinematography that helps keep us at an even further emotional distance from the characters. The one time that Stephen throws a marital tantrum, scattering silverware and breaking dishes, he does so in a kitchen so antiseptic, it could be part of Kier Dullea’s alien prison in 2001. Lanthimos has so dulled the human dimension of what we see, he makes the calculated anti-dramas of Robert Bresson look animated, mirthful. The movie is consistent. Will I see it again in five years (dragged kicking and screaming) and suddenly discover that it’s a timeless masterpiece?
The one extra is an extended featurette, An Impossible Conundrum. It introduces the main creative players, who all seem motivated, thoughtful and inspired. But that didn’t help me get into the movie at all. Again, I can’t fully explain why this frustrating show pushed me past the tipping point, patience-wise. I’ve written my honest reaction, but I wouldn’t want to dissuade adventuresome viewers into giving it a shot.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Supplements: Featurette interview docu.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 15, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson