The absolute best thing I heard going into The Killing of a Sacred Deer was the specific, Ohio-based dread it possessed to one critic who knew that Yorgos Lanthimos had shot the film in Cincinnati. He also lives in Columbus, close enough that I could theoretically run into him at the Wex, and it was his comments I remembered as Lanthimos’s camera somehow made the architecture of the hospital Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) works at seem even sharper and more angular. Just as quickly, another review calling the film hollow sprung into mind, as we see Murphy and his anesthesiologist friend discuss watches, a conversation we see as the characters briskly walk towards us while the camera tracks away from them. Already the director’s style and mannered dialogue ring odd somehow, and not in the way he surely is hoping for. My friend Jack and I spent the film’s entire run time scouring for anything worthwhile it had to say and came up empty, which feels even more dismaying given how much we got out of The Lobster after one sitting, let alone multiple viewings. But the ideas here are buried under the inflexible stylization of its writer/director, some unplayable scenes, and a tenuous connection to the world at large that makes the unreality Lanthimos is going for seem out of place and poorly contextualized. Congratulations to Lanthimos for being able to sustain a truly unique tone, but it feels restrictive on a story that badly needs a reason for being.
We spend about half an hour – at the very least – with these characters before the plot itself kicks in, as the odd son of a dead patient of Steven’s says that his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and his children Kim and Bob (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic) will die unless Steven kills one of them himself, all as their bodies starting shutting down along the way. Until now, we’ve seen Steven as this boy Martin (Barry Keoghan) interacting with the closest thing to warmth the film or the cast can conjure up, only for the relationship to degrade once Martin begins following Steven and violating personal boundaries, acting even weirder while he does it. Wife and children are met with all of their bourgeois non-peculiarities, and no one is either given or seizes a chance to make any of the film’s protagonists something more than muted ciphers for ideas about Cruel Fate and Comeuppance and Righteous Vengeance that Cape Fear does with so much insanity and gusto. Worse than that, the film has a hard time clearing up or enunciating these ideas. If we can laud Sacred Deer for being somewhat unpredictable on a scene-by-scene even as the blueprint can only point us one way, we can criticize it for the way Anna is never ever, for no explained reason, afflicted by the strange malady that is killing her children and should frankly be killing her. Longer scenes veer into increasingly unplayable dialogue, and the lies and enigmas swirling around Steve in particular never grow the ironic resonance that Lanthimos wants. Declarations of loyalty and partnership from Anna, bickering among the children as to who will die, a continued insistence on Bob’s status as the favorite and additional prominence from being the first to fall ill, all seemed to point me fruitlessly in the direction that either mother or son will die, while Kim’s romance with Martin seems specifically to combat how little she’s really present in the family unit. I never thought she was going to die, because the film itself seems to think of her as an afterthought.
In terms of unplayable scenes, what would be worse: Telling your son about a horrific childhood sexual exploit with a sleeping relative? Having to jack off a colleague in close-up for information the film undermines as he tells it to you, even if it is true? A story about how people eat spaghetti while you’re wearing cheap boxers and covered in meat sauce? The many horrific stories and absurd statements that litter Sacred Deer have none of the firepower that they’re clearly meant to, and we are left watching the actors not so much struggle with these lines as watch them push them out without any seasoning or creativity beyond what this admittedly unusual tone has to offer us. Alicia Silverstone, cat-grinning and slurring her way through her only scene as Martin’s widowed mother, is the only performer who creates more than one mood or emotion at once while still attuning themselves to the film’s style while everyone else does the one thing that’s asked of them capably and with barely anything else to offer. Meanwhile, no one moves their facial muscles and struggles to maintain their American accents for more than ten words at a time. Raffey Cassidy’s stiff heaving of herself across the floor and somewhat emotive line readings kept me at her attention compared to her other scene partners. I spent whole scenes imagining the actors pitching their characters at a higher volume, trying to actually make them people until certain lines sank the scene completely. As I said earlier, no one else manages to rise their character above anything but a cipher to expound on ideas I don’t think Sacred Deer ever articulates, makes vital, or does anything remotely interesting with. Maybe finding a human person in this script is a futile effort, but why did only Silverstone seem to try?
It doesn’t help, I think, that the world of Killing of a Sacred Deer is so ill-defined in its relation to the world at large. The Lobster’soppressive rules on coupling and outlandish locations helped create an atmosphere where Lanthimos’s style doesn’t just make sense but utterly thrive, and contextualizes the world so fully that trips to “the city” do nothing to dissipate the film’s tensions. Here we have nothing to go on in terms of where this is, what kind of reality we’re in. Yes, it’s one where a young boy can cast curses without any explanation, but he seems to be an outlier overall. What kind of world are we supposed to take this as, if our protagonists cannot count on anyone to believe their story? Maybe I’m being unimaginative to balk at this, but this is not the stilted camera of The Lobster, nor are our protagonists trapped against the frame like insects stabbed into a display with pin needles. The camera follows them and is followed by them, the world expansive and open even with the angular geometry of every building seeming so much sharper and confining than it would normally be. Instead of a relatively closed setting, we’re in an unnamed city, where this could happen to anyone, except the premise and execution are both too outlandish and too watery to have any gumption or blood or piss and vinegar to back up its convictions. I never cared much about Martin’s quest for vengeance, about Steve or any of his cursed family members. Nothing in Killing of a Sacred Deer is as funny as the incredibly awkward finale, where opera music blares at full volume while a surviving member of Steve’s absolutely drenches their fries in ketchup, without breaking eye contact with Martin, before the whole family just decides to not pay for their food and leave the diner rather than keep eating in the same building as that creepy fuck. The whole film feels like a hollow exercise for Lanthimos to flex his idiosyncratic style, and I wish there was anything for see in this except for how empty it ultimately is.
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