With previous movies like Dogtooth (2009), Alps (2011) and most recently The Lobster (The Lobster offers brilliant satire of the corrupted expectations of human coupling), Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos took some powerful but simple notions of family life to extreme heights of satire. The films said something about relationships many can relate to while highlighting the unseemly side of falling in line with social expectations. However, his latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, though again dealing with family, feels like a step backward. The most that you can say about it is that it is a dark revenge comedy that puts the audience in a safe, elevated position of judgement.
Part of the problem is that the movie falls victim to its own style. Never has the camera movements in a Lanthimos film, by regular collaborator Thimios Bakatakis, felt more mechanical and Kubrickian. The active camera, be it slow zooms or quarter-circles around characters in stasis or backward tracking shots of walk and talks, enhance the distance by which we are to observe these characters. Kubrick has often unfairly been judged as cold for this approach, but his characters often epitomized an essential quality of being. In this film, these techniques only make more alien the life of star cardiologist Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) and his well-off family of four, wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), young son Bob (Sunny Suljic) and teen-aged daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy).
There’s also the deadpan dialogue written by Lanthimos and another regular collaborator, Efthymis Filippou. It’s chilly yet comical in its directness (“Our daughter started menstruating last week,” says the doctor at a black tie industry event to a colleague). Making an appreciation of this film even more difficult is how ably performed it is by all, especially Farrell, who — as in The Lobster — gives his all. However, despite a particularly sad breakdown he gives Steven, it doesn’t cover up the fact he is a character that’s difficult to find sympathy for. This exercise on distancing the audience makes the film easy to excuse in its almost misanthropic lack of empathy it encourages from the viewer. Its effect ultimately diminishes the film’s impact when it builds to an inevitable finale played for twisted laughs that would shock in the hands of a more expert director like Michael Haneke.
The film opens strong, establishing a low-profile relationship the doctor seems to have with a 16-year-old boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan). At first there seems to be a mentoring relationship between the two, if not possibly something emotional or even sexual to supplement an emptiness at home, where wife plays anesthetized patient in the bedroom to help her husband get off. The mysterious relationship with the boy stands in contrast to the careful but clearly biased love distributed to the children by the parents. Even if it’s just caring about posture and hair, it’s Bob that gets the attention and not older sister Kim, despite her own slouching at the table and her asking about her hair. I began to expect a critique on “the perfect family,” despite the almost clinically polite talk that masked the hypocritical favoritism. Unfortunately, the film soon deteriorates into a tale of revenge on some rather easy targets: this politely dysfunctional family.
You see, Martin’s father died on Steven’s operating table. When Martin seems to curse the family with a disease that paralyzes the children from the waist down, which he says will only end in death for them all, he gives Steven a choice. In order to spare them all, Steven must kill one of them. Of course, he’s too bad of a father to sacrifice himself, so he must choose either his wife or one of his children. But what does it matter when the spirit of a family seems so dead? This writer has no problem with turns in plot that defy logic, such as the appearance of the mystical curse that never goes explained. What matters is the ends to these turns in story. The the film amounts to a sort of revenge porn experience for a man whose failed attempts to make up for a mistake he seemed hopeless to satisfy. Things like watching his children drag around their hindquarters to express their love for their parents are more pathetic than humorous and grow tiresome.
It all comes across from some elevated, sanctimonious position that no one is truly immune to. I can’t see anything but misanthropy when I reflect back on this film. To what benefit or insight is this characterization, considering the inopportune situation of Steven, who is at worst guilty of mishandling a scary situation by himself? Are doctors so over-protected by malpractice insurance that they deserve this kind of take-down? Clearly the man lacks some social skills, but I don’t see that the audience should be “gifted” such a high and mighty position that turns these characters into simple caricatures. There’s nothing to truly invest in but a few ironic jokes and some graceful camera work in what is ultimately a cruel movie.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer runs 116 minutes and is rated R. It opens in our Miami area at AMC Aventura 24, AMC Sunset Place 24, South Beach Regal 18 Miami Beach, Cinépolis Coconut Grove and in Broward, the Cinemark Paradise 24 in Davie. Then, on Friday, Nov. 17, it comes to O Cinema Wynwood. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. A24 invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.