I’m going to have to retire the phrase “craziest thing I’ve ever seen” if our modern cinematic landscape continues to evolve as it has of late. 2017 has certainly been a banner year for weird movies, and Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest is no exception.
As was the case with The Lobster and Dogtooth, Lanthimos continues to display a distinct proclivity for putting odd characters in strange situations in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and an even more entrenched propensity for challenging audiences. While I can definitively state that The Killing of a Sacred Deer is not going to be for everyone, I will say that those open to Lanthimos’ unique sensibilities will find it one of his most rewarding and engaging works.
Having said that, I would be remiss if I failed to reiterate the fact that this is a difficult movie. If you appreciated the blackhearted satire of The Lobster, chances are good that you’ll be able to get on board with Lanthimos’ off-kilter take on the creepy stalker trope so common in thrillers. But calling Sacred Deer a thriller is like calling The Lobster a romantic comedy — it might be accurate in the most basic sense of the term, but it falls far short of doing the film justice. It should be noted that this is a profoundly odd take on the prospect of a thriller, psychological or otherwise, and the plot is of far less interest than Lanthimos’ twisted worldview.
The story is parsed out with little exposition up front, but as details emerge, the picture becomes clearer, even if few straightforward answers are ever offered to the audience. The narrative hinges on the relationship between a straight-laced cardiologist (Colin Farrell) and a deadpan teen (Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk) whose flat affect suggests something both unsettling and potentially nefarious at play. As their surreptitious meetings grow to involve the doctor’s wife and children, things take a deadly turn, resulting in an incipient tragedy that can only be averted by making an impossible decision. If that plot summary sounds vague, it is deliberately so — to reveal more would be to undermine the slow-burn tension that Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou have so expertly crafted — but I will say that those who are up on their Greek tragedies will recognize the title as an allusion to the myth of Agamemnon and Iphigenia.
As a stylist, Lanthimos can be something of an acquired taste — if Kubrick can be aptly described as somewhat cold and impersonal, Lanthimos is ice personified. His camera movements often convey a sense of dread that belies the often simple actions taking place on screen, and his stilted, halting dialogue creates an ethereal impression of something otherworldly in his characters’ collective psyche. Brutally cynical, profoundly terrifying and often bleakly humorous, Sacred Deer is a testament to the capacity for unchecked creativity to produce truly jarring cinema, and there’s an inherent artistic value to such endeavors. It may not be the most enjoyable movie currently in theaters, but it is absolutely the one that I’ve expended the most time and energy trying to process. With the sheer number of films that I screen from week to week, it’s become increasingly difficult to shock me — a feat Lanthimos has accomplished in no uncertain terms. Rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content, some graphic nudity and language. Now Playing at Fine Arts Theatre.