Yorgos Lanthimos is back with The Killing of a Sacred Deer. The father of the Greek Weird Wave movement sticks to his absurdist roots, but for the first time expands upon them in the United States with his new film.
The storyline takes inspiration from the story of Iphigenia in Greek mythology, where, in retaliation for offending the goddess Artemis, King Agamemnon must kill his daughter in order to ensure his fleet’s safe travel to Troy. The Killing of a Sacred Deer begins in a similar manner. After losing 16-year-old Martin’s (Barry Keoghan) father on the operating table, surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) forms a bizarre relationship with the boy, almost acting as a surrogate father. He introduces Martin to his family, and his daughter even starts dating him. However, things drastically turn when Steven turns down Martin’s mother (Alicia Silverstone). Martin is offended and tells Steven that the “inevitable” will happen: Steven must kill one of his family members in order to even the slate. If he doesn’t, or if he takes too long to decide, his family will first become paralysed, then refuse to eat, bleed from their eyes, then die, one by one.
In bizarre Lanthimos fashion, he sticks with his unusually curt dialogue that he introduced to us in Dogtooth and carried on with his following films Alps and last year’s arthouse-turned-blockbuster The Lobster. The entirety of The Killing of a Sacred Deer is driven by static line delivery that appears to bypass any filtering from thought conception to the tongue. It’s this cold, almost emotionless delivery that provides much of the cold humor in this dark dramedy, with wonderfully uncomfortable lines such as “Our daughter started menstruating last week,” and “My mom is attracted to you – she’s got a great body.”
The Killing of a Sacred Deer marks the second of three times that Yorgos Lanthimos and Farrell will have worked together (Farrell is due to star in Lanthimos’s TV adaptation of the Iran-Contra affair for Amazon Studios). Just as it was in The Lobster, it’s clear that Farrell understands Lanthimos’s unique vision and is able to bring his carefully crafted and extremely restricted characters to life. Nicole Kidman also shines as Steven Murphy’s wife in her first piece with the auteur, able to deliver a wealth of emotion from her scarce dialogue. The most impressive performance is that of Barry Keoghan’s Martin, delightfully unlikeable in every manner while being both the antagonist and the innocent messenger, somehow simultaneously.
Lanthimos is a man of longstanding relationships, evident not only in his work with Farrell but also in his even longer relationships with his co-writer Efthymis Filippou, with which he has written all of his films save for his first film, Kinetta. While introducing the film, Yorgos Lanthimos says their brainstorming process comes easily, as they just pick a theme and they are in each other’s heads. Going back even further than his relationship with Filippou is his relationship with cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, who has been with Lanthimos since Kinetta, missing only his film Alps. Bakatakis takes a somewhat different approach to The Killing of a Sacred Deer than in his previous collaborations with the auteur. Though the tone and lighting remain remarkably similar and grim, camera motion plays a much larger role in their latest work. Cameras track in and out of shots from unusual distances, making hallways and rooms appear to go on infinitely. On top of that, many non-establishing shots are done as extreme wide shots, creating more distance from already emotionally distant characters.
While Yorgos Lanthimos may have pushed his usual thriller genre more into the realms of horror with The Killing of a Sacred Deer, he never loses himself in this shift, his auteur mark seen clearly in every second of the film. As usual, his narrative is jarring and almost nonsensical, and his visuals alienate and unsettle. As with his other films, it’s best not to question the rules of his universes, and simply enjoy the spiral into dark insanity.