It’s hard to describe just what watching a Yorgos Lanthimos movie does to your brain. Especially one that opens with an extreme close-up of open-heart surgery. The Greek writer/director/provocateur has been peddling his particular brand of...whatever it is he does for the better part of two decades now, though he didn’t become much of a household name until his 2009 release, Dogtooth, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language film. Dogtooth was an oddity not only due to its subject matter (it followed a family who kept their children from society by barricading them in the home), but for the way Lanthimos has his characters act, droning along in a monotone that betrays the wildness of the script. The perverse becomes the mundane, presumably a commentary on the desensitization of modern society. In his films following Dogtooth, it became clear that this approach was not tied to that particular story, but to Lanthimos’ entire directing aesthetic. Both Alps and The Lobster (his first English language film) feature the same detached acting style, like a majestic painting drained of its color. It was especially arresting to watch recognized actors do the schtick in The Lobster (Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw, Lea Seydoux, et al), deliberately tamping down the affect that made them stars in the first place.
Farrell apparently enjoyed the experience of working with Lanthimos enough to come back for a second helping, as he anchors the director’s new release, The Killing of a Sacred Deer. He plays Steven, a cardiologist with a loving wife, Anne (Nicole Kidman), and two lovely children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). Steven’s also involved in the life of Martin (Barry Keoghan), a sullen teenager he meets for periodic lunches and gives gifts, though it’s unclear exactly why he’s taken on such a fatherly relationship with the boy. It’s clear Martin wants him to be a father figure, even going as far as inviting him over for dinner as a pretext for his mother (Alicia Silverstone) to seduce him. It’s a strange relationship, but hints at something far stranger when Bob takes on a mysterious illness, paralyzing his legs and robbing him of his appetite. The medical world has no answers, but Martin seems to know a little bit too much about what’s happening for it to be a pure coincidence.
It’s a strange story, as you might expect, but it’s particularly strange when meted out without anything resembling emotion. Lanthimos’ monotone is still in full flower here; even the family dog is defined by its dispassionate, vacant stare as it waits for food. Farrell continues to take to it with comfort, his Irish brogue flattened out to the edges of his speech. He looks remarkably old and weathered here, his bushy beard and temples invaded by gray hair. He has a mentorly air to him, but the inner turmoil that suggests it’s little more than a veneer. Kidman plays the doting wife well, but there’s a hint of Eyes Wide Shut behind the bedroom doors, and she feels very at home with what Lanthimos wants her to do. Keoghan shows a radically different side of his acting ability than what was on display over the summer with DUNKIRK. He feels like a threat from his first appearance; he has a volatility to him that keeps you on edge in all of his scenes. You don’t necessarily know what he’s going to do and what he represents, but you do know it’s not going to end well for anyone in his fallout radius. The film is at its most compelling when he’s on screen.
There’s an arthouse bombast to The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It’s in the name. It’s in the blaring Schubert piece that plays over a black screen as the film begins. It’s in the opening hard cut to a beating heart in the middle of a gaping chest incision. It’s in the screeching, noisy soundtrack (not a score in the traditional sense, but nothing is in the traditional sense here). It’s in the subject matter, the sort of story too odd and too twisted for mass public consumption. It’s in the cinematography, a melange of long tracking shots and slow dolly moves. It’s in the glacial pacing, the sort of style that would oft be described as “Kubrickian.” And it’s in the absurdity played as genuine, as the plot spins into overdrive and consequences become deathly serious. It’s an often punishing experience to watch the film, with its cacophonous, dissonant sound design and uncompromising subject matter. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is not going to be an easy sit for just about anyone.
Yet, considering this, it also feels somewhat lacking in ways that are hard to pinpoint. Perhaps Lanthimos can only go back to the well so many times before the shock value he peddles begins to wear off. The Killing of a Sacred Deer has more than its share of shocks and provocations, but they don’t linger in the brain in quite the same way they did in Dogtooth and Alps and The Lobster. It’s the sort of style that’s difficult to come to grips with, and relies on something else to help it along. That's by design, forcing the audience to grope in the dark for anything to grasp, as all decorum and normalcy is thrown out the window. But this isn't Lynchian surrealism either. It's too mundane for that, serving no particular master. There’s definitely intrigue here, especially as it becomes clearer just what’s going on and what Martin is up to, and the third act is engaging in a way that the first two are not. It’s a somber, funereal film, one that certainly has its moments, but it’s difficult not to feel a little bit empty once the credits roll. We’ll have to see what Lanthimos has up his sleeve next, because The Killing of a Sacred Deer seems to prove that his style alone isn’t quite enough to sustain a feature.