The best kind of cinema is that which confronts you, and asks questions of you about yourself. While much of Hollywood may have done away with any provocation of thought, there are so many cinematic stories out there aiming to catch you off guard. With a debut at Cannes, 'The Killing Of A Sacred Deer' sits on the extreme end of this scale, delighting in playing by its own rules, and bringing something wonderfully unnerving to the big screen.
Doctor Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell, 'The Beguiled') has a seemingly perfect life - a successful career, a beautiful wife Anna (Nicole Kidman, 'Big Little Lies', 'Lion') and two adoring children (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic). Yet unbeknownst to his family, he has been holding clandestine meetings with a sixteen-year-old boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan, 'Dunkirk'). When Steven's family becomes unconventionally ill, no tests at the hospital can determine what's wrong with them - but Anna unravels Steven's secrets which may have brought deadly consequences to their entire family.
I'll premise my analysis by saying that this film is from Yorgos Lanthimos, the director of 'Dogtooth' and 'The Lobster'. His work is very distinctive, particularly in the language and temperament of his characters. Like the latter of those films, 'Sacred Deer' offers very rigid dialog and unfiltered remarks, resulting in bizarre and unnatural conversations - yet unlike 'The Lobster', this film is firmly located much closer to reality, with significantly more coherence and tangibility to the everyday world. What does still persevere is the eeriness pervasive throughout all of Lanthimos' work, the tension and uncomfortable moments which are beautiful yet almost unbearable. 'Sacred Deer' isn't afraid to put its audience off, and certainly did so during its Melbourne International Film Festival screening.
This film is a puzzle from the very beginning - you are left to your own devices to uncover who the people in Steven's life are and his relationships with them, but then you're also left guessing for the entirety of the film what the next move will be. It's not afraid to leave you with great big questions, and the conclusion is far from a resolution as is imaginable. That's a credit to co-writers Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou's screenplay, which elevates the story from a standard thriller and makes it something altogether more psychological and unpredictable. The story does however sag a little in the middle, with hospital scenes that could have been culled without any concern.
This film is a puzzle from the very beginning.
Across the board, the performances are both stunning and vitally congruent. Colin Farrell appears to be something of a muse for Yorgos Lanthimos, both of them having worked together on 'The Lobster'. Here Farrell is a meticulous and stoic father, growing from deadpan to desperate as the story develops. Nicole Kidman is perfectly his other half, presenting Anna as a dedicated wife but also a spirited woman, both practical and wanting to please. Cassidy and Suljic do terrific jobs too, following the adults' lead with delightfully preposterous performances - but stealing the spotlight is Barry Keoghan. Without revealing too much, his portrayal of Martin is in step with the family's quirks, while also deliberate and disturbing.
Whilst 'Sacred Deer' is largely set in stark while hospital wards and the Murphy house, and perhaps doesn't offer the complex cinematography of 'The Lobster', it's still a simultaneously stunning and distressing film to watch. DOP Thimios Bakatakis (who also worked on 'The Lobster' and 'Dogtooth') has a penchant for high-angle shots in 'Sacred Deer', peering down on the action below, whether tracking behind characters through the hospital or riding down suburban streets, with some spectacularly impressive moments captured. As the drama builds, however, and the story is almost solely relegated to the family's home, the shots become brutally confronting, as the film's inevitable ending still manages to be a truly stunning outcome.
There is little to say that can prepare you for Yorgos Lanthimos' films, but you can approach 'The Killing Of A Sacred Deer' knowing that it will shock you in the most unexpected of ways. Unsettling from the get-go, it's another indulgently outlandish offering from a director unafraid to cross lines and toy with taboos. The film is slick, smart and self-assured whilst still willing to surprise you with a sucker punch at any given moment. Not for the faint of heart, 'The Killing Of A Sacred Deer' is the best kind of barbarous cinema.