Yorgos Lanthimos makes undeniably odd films and his latest movie The Killing of a Sacred Deer, premiered at the London Film Festival is no exception. At its heart is a tale of sacrifice and the need for justice wrapped in a family drama meets sci-fi meets horror shell. So many genres echo around this film that it should be a mess, but in fact this deeply weird story is a fantastic piece of abstract cinema that references everything from the thrillers of Hitchcock, particularly the music, to the psychological terror of Kubrick’s rolling camera, and does it with flair.
At the 2015 Film Festival Lanthimos’s previous film, The Lobster also staring Colin Farrell was warmly received and although its premise was equally odd and well executed, the film’s narrative tailed off in the second half as it moved beyond the satirical confines of the hotel and into the woods where it’s purpose became somewhat muddied. The Killing of a Sacred Deer has no such problems, and beneath its bonkers veneer, maintains a searing purpose from start to shockingly dark finish.
And this is because the central concept is an alarmingly simple one, a straightforward revenge-based dilemma with the fear of dire consequences the longer the characters prevaricate. It’s a clever choice to make this a movie about the most universal emotion, love, and one which everyone can related to in some way, but it is the way Lanthimos frames the story, flattens the emotional responses of the characters and contrasts this by employing a range of tension-building techniques that create a genuine sense of jeopardy throughout, leaving the audience questioning what you would do in the same situation.
Cardiothoracic surgeon Steven has the perfect life; a successful career, a beautiful and loving wife of 16 years and two children who are popular and settled at school. But Steven has a secret friendship with misfit teenager Martin, the son of a man who died during an operation some months before, who sees Steven as a replacement father and starts to become too dependent. Keen to step back, Steven begins to understand the full extent of Martin’s power when his son Bob suddenly becomes sick. With his family under threat Steven trust that science will cure everything, until the increasingly menacing Martin gives him a terrible ultimatum.
Right from the start as the camera pans out from the beating heart of someone undergoing surgery, Lanthimos’s film, co-written with Efthymis Filippou has a striking visual style that seems entirely sinister. Much of this film’s success is down to Jade Healy’s production design and the shrewd use of Johnnie Burn’s music that create a strange world of clinical perfection and hidden agendas. All of the sets seem oddly unreal, particularly Steven’s hospital where he strides down endless squeaky-clean corridors with apparently no patients or other staff loitering about. It’s vast emptiness and eerie silences, only broken by the perfect swooshing of automatic doors, is reminiscent of the kind of “facility” beloved of science fiction where dubious human experimentation is being carried out or murderous robots are manufactured, and gives what should be a safe place of health and healing a much more uncertain purpose. This is amplified by the rapidly retreating camera that moves with the actors making these corridors seem longer and unforgiving, like a shot taken from The Shining.
Even the tastefully decorated Murphy family home that is the basis for most of the other scenes has its dark recesses, mixing the cosy luxury of the couple’s light-filled bedroom and sleek kitchen with the concrete desolation of the basement, a place that features more and more as the assumed perfection of their lives begin to unravel. Frequently too, Lanthimos adopts the Hitchcock technique of filming characters through windows, both distancing the viewer from the individuals to blunt our sympathies, while simultaneously distorting our impression of them. And there’s a shot of Steven and Martin with a bridge in the background that’s pure Vertigo.
The music is a swirl of heavy strings and drum beats that’s also right out of Hitchcock, and because the delivery of the lines is purposefully unemotional, it signals the highest moments of tension and some of the crucial twists, as though it rather than the actors is portraying pain, fear and disgusted comprehension. The music is also deliberately overbearing, it’s not there to gently underscore a scene but to act as an integral part, an additional character in the unfolding drama that does as much to affect the audience’s perception of time, place and tone as any other part of the film.
It can be difficult for Hollywood actors to shake off industry expectation and the easy typecasting that sees them make the same film repeatedly, but Colin Farrell, who also starred in Lobster, has successfully moved away from the generic action roles of his 20s and 30s to take on a more varied selection of projects in recent years, and a willingness to embrace a different physique and appearance to suit the smug middle-class existence of this role. His Steven is a fascinating depiction of misdirection, delivered in the entirely deadpan tone that makes Lanthimos’s work so strangely watchable.
Farrell plays with our preconceptions about the arrogance of surgeons and God-complexes and through his predicament the idea of having life and death in his hands becomes something else entirely. He’s also extremely hard to read, and while initially we sympathise with his insistence on fact and procedure, the effect of his evasiveness raises plenty of questions about his character, his ethics and even his skills as a doctor. Farrell slowly unveils these layers as the story twists and turns, leaving the viewer with no sense of what he’s going to do, yet maintaining a consistent idea of Steven as a person, as though these traits were always there, just hidden and distorted.
Likewise, Nicole Kidman’s Anna evolves past the role of dutiful wife, devoted mother and apparently successful career woman – she has a clinic we never see. Cast initially like a Hitchcock blonde, a hostage to fate, awaiting rescue, her own motives become increasingly difficult to discern. On learning of the ultimatum, she is as guilty as Steven for prolonging events, fearing as much for herself as for her family, and she becomes more of an accomplice in the eventual outcome. Like her husband, Anna has a cool demeanour that seemed like contentment but has murkier depths as the tension heightens, which Kidman delivers with a degree of ambiguity that nicely compliments the film’s disturbing tone.
There are few things more alarming in a horror film than creepy children and the three young actors successfully pitch their performances to leave open severely interpretations of the script. Barry Keoghan as Martin is a shy damaged boy who on the surface takes a paternal shine to the man who last saw his father. But Martin has a more complex psychological role in the drama which Keoghan plays with an understatement that maintains credibility in the most bizarre moments. Likewise, Raffey Cassidy as daughter Kim and Sunny Suljic as Bob also tread an interesting line between manipulator and victim that take the film into some extremely black territory as they play with audience sympathies.
The purposefully restrained, emotionless and stilted delivery of the lines takes a while to get used to and is often at odds with what’s being said, but is a core ingredient of the uneasy world of compromised morals and impossible choices. The Killing of a Scared Deer is a film that has to be watched without too much knowledge of the plot to truly enjoy its many twists and surprises. Lanthimos’s skill as a director and co-writer is to deliberately subvert your expectations of what the end should be and how you expect characters to behave given the issues they face, and it is this that heightens your investment, wanting to find out who they really are and how far they will go. Sinister, weird and with the blackest heart, The Killing of a Scared Deer is a sacrifice worth making.
The Killing of a Scared Deer was premiered at the London Film Festival and opens in the UK on 3 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1