Film & Television

Uneasy appeasement in Yorgos Lanthimos’ ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’

By Luke Goodsell
The director of ‘The Lobster’ can’t quite pull off this high-concept dance between the grandiose and the grotesque

The Greeks sure understand the wrath of whimsical gods. According to ancient myth, the goddess Artemis was so affronted by King Agamemnon accidentally bumping off one of her pet deer that she ordered the latter to sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia, by way of appeasement (which might seem excessive, until you realise he was messing with the Mistress of Animals). Depending on which version of the story you encounter, the King either goes through with the grim deed or Artemis saves the princess by switching her for an animal at the last moment. In others, such as filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ reworking (now showing nationally), Iphigenia is heard to incant Ellie Goulding’s ‘Burn’ – the pop hit’s joyous chorus whispered in defiant mockery of Daddy’s indifference to her fate.

This much isn’t a spoiler; it’s right there in the title, at least for students of folklore and mythology or Google. The so-called Greek Weird Wave director has fashioned a career from such high-concept yuks, from his twisted family cult breakout Dogtooth (2009) to the sci-fi dating satire The Lobster (2015), and his latest film expressly riffs on the tragedy of Iphigenia – though in what form, it’s up to the audience to guess. It’s the kind of ambitious conceit that requires highwire execution, and Lanthimos has created a trance he can’t quite sustain; torn between the grandiose and the grotesque, the film dazzles and then sputters, calcified in its commitment to its peculiar formalism.

Lanthimos has always contorted obvious metaphor and droll absurdism, to varying degrees of success. After a turgid overture involving comically swollen opera and grisly surgery – behold, mankind prised open – The Killing of a Sacred Deer settles into a glib prowl across the existence of the dead-eyed bourgeoisie. Lobster alumnus Colin Farrell plays Steven Murphy, a leading surgeon at a Cincinnati hospital, a man in such calm control of his life-and-death power that his major concern seems to be the water resistance of his wristwatch. Nicole Kidman is his ophthalmologist Stepford wife, mechanically splaying herself on the marital bed in a position her husband likes to call “general anaesthetic”. Their kids, teenage Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and pre-teen Bob (Sunny Suljic), behave like simulacra placed by an AI adoption agency. Icy suburbia, sterile workplaces, a marriage frozen in amber. The material almost feels too easy for a filmmaker once as adventurous, as unpredictable, as Lanthimos.

The one spark of disorder in this ritual is the relationship between Steven and 16-year-old Martin, disconcertingly played by Barry Keoghan as a larval interloper whose unformed physicality belies a precocious – and possibly sinister – mind. Steven and Martin engage in secret rendezvous, and the audience is invited to decode the unusual nature of their friendship. Is it paternal, avuncular or something unsavoury? It’s just the beginning of Lanthimos’ cruel design.

For an exhilarating 45 minutes or so, the film suspends expectations in a delicious spell of deadpan menace. Lanthimos’ bone-dry humour mixes with his giddy, wandering Steadicam – you’d think he’d just discovered the device, or seen The Shining once too often – to distort a familiar world of hospital wards, living spaces and city streets, where the family’s upper-middle-class mansion is surveyed through wide-angle lenses that render the rooms palatial tombs. The performances, too, thrive under this pointed formalism. Farrell projects a self-satisfied reality of science and reason by dialling his brogue down into a wonderfully hypnotic purr; his beard, a thick and impenetrable forest, becomes a muzzle. It’s impossible to watch Kidman, meanwhile, without recalling her remote spouse of Eyes Wide Shut – unsurprising, given the extent to which Kubrick figures in Lanthimos’ aesthetic playbook here, acute bursts of György Ligeti’s discordant music and all.

And so behind the composed facade brews chaos, as surely as the goddess plots the unravelling of the patriarch. Lanthimos and his regular co-screenwriter Efthymis Filippou have crafted a universe in which women are routinely marginalised – lying prostrate for man’s pleasure or using sexual favours to bargain for information – which makes it fascinating to watch as Kim, the teenage sort-of Iphigenia, colludes in a secret pact with Martin. As the archetypical teens and the American nuclear family’s agents of havoc, Kim and Martin’s relationship feels like a revolution – not for nothing does she perform ‘Burn’ for him as a kind of call to arms. As if to reinforce this, there’s a metatextual cameo from a patron saint of teen movies, Alicia Silverstone, playing Martin’s manipulative mother. “I won’t let you leave until you try my tart,” the once-and-forever Cher Horowitz taunts Farrell, an invitation to anarchy curling up at the corner of that famously crooked grin. Artemis would be proud.

It’s a heady cocktail, and yet the film arrives at an impasse. Lanthimos has increasingly painted himself into high-concept corners in his recent work, and once The Killing of a Sacred Deer reveals its big hand, the film grinds gears in an effort to deliver on its outrageous premise. Where the garish formalism works a discomfiting treat across the first half, Lanthimos’ tricks feel rote once things hit their final groove, and the film’s tonal register becomes suffocating rather than mysterious. The methodical unravelling of Farrell’s surgeon plays as a scenario custom-built for ill-conceived hot takes: it’s about science, the patriarchy, the age of [insert current bad dude of the week]. “You’re not a god,” Steven is mocked by Andie MacDowell’s Rita on TV in Groundhog Day, one of the visual punchlines giggling from the mise en scène.

It’s tempting to wonder whether Lanthimos hasn’t traded some of his funky, cheerful misanthropy for a drearier arthouse miserablism, and indeed some pundits have likened this film to the work of Michael Haneke. But Lanthimos remains too funny. It’s in the way his camera relishes Steven treating his son as a marionette, or watches bemused as the kids drag themselves around the house like seals, or savours a remarkably disgusting close-up of Martin shovelling spaghetti into his mouth with the exact same poignancy as the surgery – all of them entrails for the devouring in Lanthimos’ view.

I’d even suggest that Killing of a Sacred Deer is an uplifting film, with an underhanded kiss-off that suggests a skewed coming-of-age tale – a bizarro rite of passage devoted to a belief in myth and magic and an outmoded order being taken down a notch or two. It’s odd then that even as the film reaches its inevitable point of chaos – where it’s theoretically bleak and indifferent and amusing in all the ways it should be – it somehow feels dramatically undernourished. Lanthimos seems to have lost a little of his old playfulness along the way. “Do you understand? It’s a metaphor,” Martin tells Steven at one point, as though Artemis has decided to manifest as some pimply Bond villain. “It’s symbolic.”

Thanks for the reminder. You had us at ‘Burn’.

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is a critic and editor who has contributed to the ABC, SBS and the Melbourne International Film Festival.


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