The most reflexive knock against the mordantly debased films of Yorgos Lanthimos is that they don’t seem to make any sense. If that criticism holds any water, it’s only because sense is the very thing that all of Lanthimos’ characters are trying to make for themselves — his movies can’t afford to manufacture it for them.
That has always been the case for the singular Greek auteur, whose body of work is distinguished by a hilariously masochistic flair for deadpan debauchery, but whose stories are more fundamentally bound by their shared obsession with striking a harmony of some kind between logic and emotion. Not even “Star Trek” is so preoccupied with finding that equilibrium.
In “Dogtooth,” an overprotective couple keep their adult children in a fenced-off compound, inventing a complicated mythos of symbols and signs so that their kids don’t question the fairy tale that holds them hostage. In “Alps,” bereaved people hire performers to play their dead loved ones, hoping that a secondhand feeling might help mitigate the facts. In “The Lobster,” with which Lanthimos seamlessly translated his brand into English and welcomed Hollywood stars into his world, singles are forced to couple up lest they be transformed into an animal of their choosing. It doesn’t matter why, the only thing that matters is the choice it provokes: Finding a partner seems like the smart way out, but is faking your feelings for someone worse than being a crustacean with few natural predators and a long lifespan? It’s a tough call.
Naturally, in that light, it was only a matter of time before Lanthimos came to the United States of America, a place that spent 2016 swinging the pendulum between logic and emotion and eventually settled on madness. America is a place where Lanthimos’ wry provocations have been enacted on a mass scale, where “Dogtooth” has become less of a metaphor for the way we live now than a precocious abstraction of a country that’s been lied to and left to self-harm. In other words, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” has to up the ante, and it does. This is Lanthimos’ most scattered and sedate film, but it’s his scariest as well.
“The Lobster” alum Colin Farrell stars as Steven, a Cincinnati surgeon with some bloodied latex in his trash can and some skeletons in his closet. He’s thinner, bushier, and more imposing than Ferrell’s previous Lanthimos role, but he speaks the same way; “Sacred Deer” might be the least affected movie that Lanthimos has made since his 2005 debut, “Kinetta,” but everyone still communicates in stilted, uncomfortably blunt sentences, like they’re being spied on by the government or acting in a terrible instructional training video for some big corporation. Half of the dialogue is small talk, but the small talk often consists of unprovoked lines like “Our daughter started menstruating this week.”
Steven has a slightly more natural rapport with his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman, in a quietly broken performance that calls to mind the fragile maternalism she brought to “Eyes Wide Shut”). Of course, their sex makes up for that. Anna lies naked on the bed and pretends to be under varying degrees of anesthesia while Steven does his business. This is a film that draws from more influences than a sui generis talent like Lanthimos ever has before, and shades of everything from “Birth” to “Blue Velvet” to David Cronenberg’s early body horror can be found in this suburban nightmare, which alternates between the sterile hallways of Steven’s hospital and the immaculate interiors of the upper-class house that he shares with his wife and their two kids, Kim and Bob (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic).
It’s the third kid who’s the problem, as Steven is suddenly reacquainted with the teenage son of a man he once lost on the operating table. His name is Martin (Barry Keoghan), and he’s a sinister villain of Biblical proportions. Always calm and disaffected, even at the height of his sociopathic harm, Martin ingratiates himself with Steven’s family before he delivers his ultimatum: Steven has to kill one of his family members, or all three of them will die. First they’ll stop walking, then they’ll stop eating, then they’ll bleed from their eyes, and then they’ll stop breathing — the kid lays this out with the hurried casualness of a secretary relaying a message. To his mind, that’s the only way that justice will be served, the only way that balance can be restored.
In Lanthimos’ world, people only think they can be happy if they’re all hurting equally.
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