In recent years, few films have ignited similar levels of in-depth debate as those enjoyed by 2015’s The Lobster. A masterpiece to some, Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos’s absurd social satire may have started strong, but after an hour or so of intriguing build up at the hotel – at times even appearing to mock traditional indie cinema itself, which later became a distraction – it failed to hold me (and others) once proceedings entered the woods. Though an interesting international breakthrough for Lanthimos, the accolades it went on to receive were perhaps a bit of an overreaction.
His follow up, The Killing of a Sacred Deer – starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman and Barry Keoghan, and having already won Lanthimos and The Lobster co-writer Efthymis Filippou Best Screenplay at Cannes – looks set to follow a similar critically acclaimed path. This time around, however, it would be thoroughly deserved.
Seeing such an anticipated picture at the sleepy (and I mean that literally; numerous wonderful seniors, one or two of who may nod off, attend each screening) Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) provided the ideal backdrop. Lanthimos’s films aways have a festival feel to them, and expectant VIFF patrons were more than ready to absorb whatever the director had to throw at them.
What he did throw at them was a beautifully shot, lingering satire, framed more directly as a surreal psychological horror than an outright absurdist tale, while at the same time maintaining a creepily consistent sense of brutal mirth right from the word go. During his maintaining of an awkward relationship with a rather strange teenage boy named Martin (Keoghan), heart surgeon Dr. Steven Murphy (Farrell), his wife and fellow doctor (Kidman), and their two children (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic) become entangled in Martin’s gradual, but highly effective game of twisted vengeance.
Forever sprouting winding thematic branches from a core stem that, like The Lobster, is an examination of the raw ridiculousness of humanity, Lanthimos and Filippou’s follow up script feels more rounded, only wavering slightly during the final third before picking up for the finale. The concentrated infusion of youth makes for layered character engagement supported by multiple unique viewpoints. Much of the gloriously sinister humour comes from the bizarrely relatable relationships and perceptions that exist in such a traditional middle class family setting.
The suitably blank, frank, and only eventually emotional nature of the performances ties effortlessly into the writing, with each of the main players putting in a strong shift. Keoghan – fresh from his plucky turn in Dunkirk – is a highlight; his uneasy expressions and monotone ramblings fluctuating with intensity depending on both his situation and the related audience awareness of his motivations.
Lanthimos’s direction and Thimios Bakatakis’s cinematography combine for a subtle, yet invasive build up of tension alongside the grinding sound design of fellow The Lobster collaborator, Johnnie Burn. Whereas the domination of screeching strings actually ended up hampering their last production, here the underlying platform of pounding percussion compliments the sporadic bursts of classic compositions.
Uncomfortable to the extent that it will no doubt spark debates similar to, though likely less intense than those that came in the wake of The Lobster, Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a darkly humorous journey worth catching at the most art house cinema you can find.
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