The latest film from Yorgos Lanthimos is one that somewhat proudly stands on an infrastructure of masochism, both implicit and explicit.
“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is uncomfortable virtually all the way through – for both its characters and for us in the seats watching through peered fingers. The Greek director/writer who broke out as a sort of demented Wes Anderson with last year’s Oscar-nominated “The Lobster” has now added a dash of Darren Aronofsky, and the result is one of the more original and – no matter how hard some will try to repel its sadistic vibes – unforgettable motion pictures of 2017.
Lanthimos once again employs the talents of Colin Farrell, who in many ways resembles his character from “Lobster” – dryly humorous with hints of subtle morbidity. In “Sacred Deer,” though, he isn’t searching for love or anything else. He’s completely content with what life has given him: A job as a top-notch surgeon, a wife, a family, the luxuries of watches with metal straps.
Instead, he’s keenly trying to keep something locked away.
Without going into spoilers, that something has led him to have a relationship with a teenage boy to whom he has a decidedly life-altering connection. It’s more personal than mentor-mentee, but something about Farrell’s hesitance keeps it from resembling a father-son bond.
“Sacred Deer,” in the early going, seems like a simple enough tale in depicting this admittedly admirable relationship, as well as the fairly unastounding family life of Farrell’s Steven Murphy, though he is matched step-by-step by a powerful and alluring Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Murphy.
But those who watched last year’s “Lobster” know simplicity isn’t what Lanthimos shoots for. The camera also knows it; most of the time it’s either keeping a safe distance, creeping behind our characters or lingering just overhead, as if catching the eye of Steven or Martin would send it scurrying away.
Soon enough, though, the audience starts to catch the hints too, and at one point, like a bursting dam, “Sacred Deer” goes from dark dramedy to even darker psychological horror. It seethes with an almost folkloric tone as it unfolds a tale of unbridled guilt, karma and revenge, and it also sneakily features one of the most magnetic performances of the year in Barry Keoghan’s Martin.
It’d be easy to say Martin is some hyperbolic representation of the struggles facing the denizens of Teenagedom, but his motivations are much more personal than, say, Christian Slater in “Heathers.” He’s a goosebump-inducing caricature of contemporary witchcraft who is simply — again, “simply” — seeking justice for Steven’s questionable past deeds, in ways that are simultaneously earnest and horrific.
At the same time, Keoghan breaks out from his Just Another Young Male European Actor™ shell to a force we now have to pay attention to.
Even when Keoghan isn’t on screen, there’s an undercurrent of malice that is impossible to ignore. Lanthimos infuses “Sacred Deer” with a seductive type of horror which, true to form, manifests itself in the bizarre and unnatural.
Much like Aronofsky’s polarizing “mother!” from earlier this year, it’s meant to be uncomfortable to witness, helped along by cacophonous sound design, an increasingly unsettling score consistently teasing an imminent doom, and some of the year’s most striking imagery for the genre. Throughout the cavernous rooms of the wealthy Murphy family’s house, ceiling fans are sometimes spinning at seemingly possessed rates. By a certain point in “Sacred Deer,” it wouldn’t be out of place for someone to be thrown up into them.
“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” can come across as emotionless. By comparison, even Lanthimos’s own “The Lobster” feels like “Singing in the Rain.” But what it might lack in emotional profundity it makes up for – whether we want it to or not – in monumental depths of madness as it puts the Murphys through increasingly heinous situations.
The scariest thing is that they are almost accepting of what is happening. Karma makes no friends, Lanthimos is saying.
In this world of sacred deer and unforgivable acts, cruelty isn’t simply suggested. It’s expected, and begrudgingly cherished.