So, Halloween might have just passed, but I think I might have just seen one of the best horror movies of the year.
Not that The Killing of a Sacred Deer is exactly what I would think of when I think “horror movie”, but I don’t know what else I would call it. A thriller? That suggests a breakneck pace, a tautness that just isn’t present in the carefully-constructed slowness of this movie. Drama? A drama implies character arcs and satisfying resolutions. Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster) and his new movie in particular are consistently slippery, defying expectation and categorization.
Because The Killing of a Sacred Deer is deeply odd film: Lanthimos draws these performances that seem deliberately blank from his leading cast, as though to underline the speckles of emotion we do see, like a black dot on a white wall, and this blankness feels off-kilter in a profound way that defies definition. Right from the opening shot – a protracted close-up of a beating heart during surgery – The Killing of a Sacred Deer is here to discomfort. And that, it certainly does.
Following Colin Farrell’s Steven Murphy, a cardiologist with a historic substance abuse problem, the story picks up as Murphy attempts to connect with Martin (Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk), the son of a man he inadvertently killed during surgery under the influence. As Steven attempts to bring Martin further into his life, it soon becomes clear that Martin poses a dangerous threat to both Steven and his family, his wife (Nicole Kidman) and two children.
On paper, that doesn’t sound too weird, but the way Lanthimos (along with co-screenwriter Efthymis Filipou) teases out the story turns it into something more: the story picks up almost in the middle of that narrative, with the audience left to catch up based on what we can glean from character interactions. Barry Keoghan as Martin is a revelation, his every appearance on screen inching up the dread factor by a few notches; Farrell, who I have never really liked as an actor, seems to have found a director who actually works with his inherent blankness and puts in a strong performance, once again up against an on-form Kidman who seems to draw out the best in him (see also: The Beguiled).
The direction is a film geek’s wet dream; deep frames and wide angles force you to examine every inch of the screen for clues as to what’s coming, while the sterility of Steven’s hospital workplace works as stark contrast to the burst of violence that punctuate the story. Long, sprawling scenes are jittery with odd, specific details and dialogue, and everything works to bring together this sense of utter horror that’s far more intense than many movies that bill themselves in that genre. It’s one thing to go into a movie and sit down expect to be scared; it’s quite another for a film to inflict that on you in such a relentless and ruthless way when you’re not expecting it.
I understand that it’s pointed oddness will probably put off some viewers – Lanthimos displayed a similair style in his previous movie The Lobster and it just didn’t work at all for me there. But here, he seems to have hit his stride and in doing so, found his way to one of the most brain-gnawingly unsettling movies of the year.
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