As obscure as the source of the title for this movie is, it’s also a major spoiler for the largely inexplicable events that happen in the second half, because I expect that some people would approach the movie by Googling the meaning of it. In that respect, it’s too clever for its own good. I waited until after the movie ended to do it, and you should too.
As it turns out, while the title was mystifying to me going in, by the time I hit up the internet I already knew the story. If you know it too, it won’t really add to your knowledge of Yorgos (The Lobster) Lanthimos’s latest movie or what happens in it, but it’ll provide the same “Ah, riiiiiight” moment it did for me. Suffice it to say that I won’t mention what the title means in this review – you’ll have to find out for yourself.
This is described as a “psychological horror story” elsewhere, and I suppose that’s apt, but it fails to mention that, despite the chilliness of plot and character, there’s also a deep supernatural vein running through it that’s barely scratched, let alone mined – in fact it’s an aspect that you don’t get until you tie the plot to the meaning of the title. I actually really appreciated the subtlety of this. As someone who leans heavily in favour of stories where a mere hint of the supernatural can devastate all around it, this eye-opening revelation was a real pleasure.
Starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell, the story centers on the Murphys, a well off family whose lives are disrupted by the introduction of a strange character, all of it leading to a tragic end. While the story centers on Steven (Farrell), the husband and father, Kidman’s Anna almost feels like a Lady Macbeth type, particularly after a couple of lines of dialogue towards the end of the movie. The “disruption” I mentioned comes in the form of first one, then both, of their children becoming afflicted with waist-down paralysis the cause of which can’t be determined by any of the experts Steven and Anna bring in. The only diagnoses they receive are that the condition seems psychosomatic. Except Steven knows that it isn’t, thanks to the movie’s game-changing midpoint scene. The rest of the movie can best be described as the lead up to the major decision the Murphys have to make as their understanding of the situation evolves from rejection to acceptance.
In the hands of most other writers and directors, this script (by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou) would have played up the heart-rending aspect of the decision, but not so here. The movie is so cold and sterile beforehand that to bring in that kind of high emotional content would have been forced and out of place. Lanthimos and his cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis film each scene with a clinical detachment that resembles (to me, anyway) the style of Stanley Kubrick, where one feels more like an observer of events, rather than a vicarious participant. I was also reminded of Michael Haneke, but specifically because of both his versions of Funny Games, especially in one climactic scene. I had the feeling early on that The Killing Of A Sacred Deer was a remake of a European movie (it isn’t), and that feeling stayed with me through to the end. The same kind of detachment present in Funny Games is also echoed in more recent indie horror like The Eyes Of My Mother and Goodnight Mommy, and for me it’s an element as essential to the horror genre as some of the more familiar tropes, because while it plays up the separation between audience and character, conversely it tends to lend greater depth and authenticity to both character and event. If there’s a term named “the documentary effect”, I’ll use it here – if not, remember you heard it here first, True Believers!
Cinematically, it isn’t just the camera which puts up the barrier between audience and film here, it’s also the dialogue – both written and spoken. It’s not for everyone, and I could understand if someone might find it off putting, but this is a movie where one needs to buy into the entire milieu in order to get something from it. There’s a forced staginess to the dialogue. Lanthimos doesn’t make any attempt to replicate natural human speech patterns any more than he tries to film the movie in a typical fashion, and it adds to the overall strangeness of the story. No more so than when Martin, the 16 year old plot-driving character, speaks. Early on I wasn’t feeling the character. I’d never heard of the actor (Barry Keoghan) before, and was surprised to read on Wikipedia that he’s actually 25. He looks pretty close to mid teens in the movie. I must learn his secret. As the movie goes on, and once his motive is revealed at the mid point, my interest in the character spiked and I came to greatly appreciate his delivery and the contribution it made to the entire piece. And about that midpoint – you might think that the first half of the movie is hinting at a particular kind of relationship between Martin and Steven (I did), so that when the true nature of this relationship is revealed, it deepened my interest in the second half. My only major criticism of the second half is that once the relationship is uncovered for what it is, it takes longer than it should for it to change. This part of the movie also features the movie’s one overtly Lynchian moment (the rest of the movie steers clear), when Alicia Silverstone appears in a cameo as someone who looks as if she’s teetering on the edge of sanity. I’ve always liked her, and for the few minutes of screentime she has, I thought she did a great job.
I’ve mentioned my distaste for casual female nudity recently, in movies like The Shape Of Water and Sun Choke, but while Nicole Kidman gets her kit off a couple of times here, I didn’t feel it was exploitative, mostly because Farrell is shown naked a couple of times, and not in a flattering light. Kidman doesn’t get ogled by the camera, and since she’s also a major player in Hollywood I thing she’s past the point of allowing herself to be exploited. But I was put off more than a little by the scene where the Murphys’ 14 year old daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) strips down to her underwear to unknowingly replicate her parents’ bedroom fetish. Did it feel exploitative? I don’t think it went any further than It did when Beverly undressed at the waterhole, but it was awkward to watch. Then again, if seeing a 14 year old girl in her underwear didn’t make me feel awkward, Lanthimos would have failed in the intent of that scene.
This movie is far from brilliant, but then most movies fall short of that. I enjoyed this movie far more than I expected I would going in, so for me that’s a big win. The Killing Of A Sacred Deer is absolutely not for everyone – I think one needs to be primed to appreciate this kind of work. If you are, I recommend it.
© Andrew Hope 2017