With The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos moved his capacity for originality from the bizarre social commentary of Dogtooth into the realm of high-concept sci-fi, with mixed results. Now, with a no less unique and surprising film, Lanthimos turns his eye to something much more traditional, with the superb The Killing of a Sacred Deer turning to Medieval morality plays, Greek tragedies, and the Old Testament for its inspirations. Turning a family inside out to pay for the sins of the father, this taboo shattering and enthralling film unravels its mysteries slowly but ruthlessly, creating a marrow-deep feeling of unease, punctuated by genuine hilarity.
That these laughs integrate so well into the pitch-black darkness of the story is a testament to Lanthimos’s skill and style. At points you’re not sure if what you’ve just seen was meant to be laughed at, but these moments always swiftly reveal themselves as intentionally disturbingly funny. Lanthimos loves to keep you on your toes, whether through this tonal lane-changing or his breaking of boundaries, retaining Sacred Deer’s power to shock from start to finish without feeling cheap or exploitative. It doesn’t just use these scenes to perk up a drab section or take you by surprise, but builds the power of its story of otherworldly punishment around them.
From the off, discomfort is the order of the day, as high-profile heart surgeon and easy-going family man Steven (Colin Farrell) meets with his 17 year old companion Martin (Barry Keoghan, revelatory) for apple pie and gift exchanges in a diner. Their relationship – not familial, not quite friendly – remains unexplained for quite a while, and Steven even lies to his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and co-worker (Bill Camp) about how he and Martin know each other. Their exchanges are, if not quite tense, underpinned by a subtle graveness, brought to the fore by Farrell and Keoghan’s excellent performances.
But, as ill fate starts to befall Steven’s children, Martin’s purpose in his life becomes clear. He’s both a figure from Steven’s past and an agent of Old Testament justice, uninterested in empathy or bargaining, simply here to bring down the wicked, who have exacerbated their guilt by never taking blame or responsibility. A reckoning has to arrive, and it’s up to Steven (a man of science who believes he can think his way out of his situation) to face it head on. Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou drive the plot forward without any mercy to its characters, closing every door to them until they’re faced with unimaginable sacrifice.
Brechtian dialogue keeps the audience at bay – Lanthimos never wants you to forget that you’re watching a fable – but the atmosphere enraptures you regardless, creating the strange sensation of being trapped between reality and the film. Lanthimos’s camera is constantly scuttling or swooping, like viewing everything from the point of view of a horror movie monster. Cast as voyeuristic apparitions, it’s almost as if the audience is as culpable as Martin for the suffering of Steven and his family. It’s a technique that makes Sacred Deer entirely its own beast, thrillingly original.
Kidman and the child actors are great, their descent into the poisonous fog that Martin brings into their lives piercingly well-realised, but first and foremost this is Farrell and Keoghan’s show. Calmly sociopathic, but also desperately sad, it’s the sort of performance that will launch Keoghan into a thousand villain roles. Farrell’s maintaining of his Irish accent combined with Steven’s lilting awkwardness in the face of divine intervention gives him the air of an on-edge Father Dougal McGuire, and I mean it as very high praise when I say that Sacred Deer sometimes feels like the darkest ever episode of Father Ted.
With that comparison comes an expectation of brilliant comedy, and Lanthimos delivers in spades on that front. As well as nailing its feel-bad-for-laughing gags, room is found for more exclusively light-hearted humour, with Steven’s attempts to think of a punishment for the children ending up with one of the best belly laugh lines of 2017. Though a more serious tone prevails for much of the third act, as Steven comes to terms with exactly what he’s dealing with, the climax brings the absurdity back for an unforgettably nail-biting yet silly conclusion.
If you were so inclined, it would be very easy to miss the point of Sacred Deer, with its alienating dialogue and nerve-jangling, overpowering music cues, and the boos it earned from the often very boring European critics at Cannes are understandable. It never attempts anything easy or conventional, and if you approach it at its level, then it is a wonderfully idiosyncratic and unpredictable piece of cinema that will have you nervously thinking over your own past crimes. Lanthimos’s film is a daring high-wire tightrope act, pulled off with tremendous confidence and verve and hardly a wobble.