Yorgos Lanthimos asks the viewer to consider whether society has evolved at all since Euripides.
Sexually forward, grossly violent, highly inappropriate and considerably discomforting, there may be no other film quite like The Killing of a Sacred Deer, even in director Yorgos Lanthimos’ eclectic résumé. The title comes from the Euripides play Iphigenia in Aulis, on which the film is loosely based. In fact, a brief mention of Iphigenia is one of the only clues that Lanthimos and frequent co-writer Efthymis Filippou give to their intentions. The resulting cinematic puzzle is the rare film that respects its audience’s intelligence and at the same time tries to shock and discomfort them.
Lanthimos, the Greek director that burst onto the international scene with the Oscar-nominated Dogtooth, often has actors deliver lines with little to no inflection. This is particularly suited to his latest film. Dialogue is frequently disturbing or densely metaphorical, leaving the attentive viewer to try to decipher meaning while the film continues on as if nothing strange has happened. The technique works particularly well with cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis’ dreamy filming of Cincinnati and its well-groomed suburbs. The camera often focuses on something unrelated to the action, encouraging the viewer to search for the true center of the scene. For instance, the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge gets so much screen time that it deserves an acting credit, yet the clandestine meetings that happen in the bridge’s shadow are underplayed but vital.
Of course, style would mean little without engaging content. The plot begins simply, with surgeon Steven (Colin Farrell) taking the odd-but-endearing Martin (Barry Keoghan of Dunkirk) under his wing. Steven invites Martin to his home to meet his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and his two children, teenager Kim (Raffey Cassidy, who was the best part of Tomorrowland) and pre-teen Bob (Sunny Suljic). The dinner goes well, with a spark igniting between Kim and Martin, who returns the favor by inviting Steven over to dinner at his house. In a scene that serves as a catalyst of strangeness in an already profoundly weird film, Steven arrives alone to eat with Martin and his mother (Alicia Silverstone in a pitch-perfect cameo) and ends up watching Groundhog Day as Martin’s mother attempts to suck his fingers.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer demands viewers to engage with it at a higher level. If the action is accepted as a simple thriller, then the second half of the film will infuriate even the most patient.
Though the film comments on toxic masculinity, it is disconcerting to see its female characters completely under the control of men. The only significant independent actions undertaken by women are exertions of feminine wiles. Although this is often the case under the patriarchy, and how it would have been in an actual Greek tragedy, Lanthimos and Filippou would have done well to play up the absurdity of these intelligent 21st century women trying to save themselves by putting on sexy dresses and baking pies. Perhaps as compromise, the women are given the best lines, with Silverstone throwing out a particularly memorable one at the end of her single scene. Kidman is the most accomplished thespian in the production and it shows as the actress switches between seductive, tired, driven and vicious in the space of seconds, all while delivering her lines in monotone. It’s another example of how consistently outstanding Kidman has been since entering her 50s, a fact which will hopefully remind Hollywood that women don’t just vanish into thin air once they enter middle age.
Thick around the middle and prone to inappropriate sexual actions and commentary, Steven is a tricky role and Farrell handles it very well. He’s unreadable, but that’s the point. Steven acts on his urges and impulses without regard to the fallout, and that is ultimately what damns him. Farrell is at his best when matched against Keoghan’s Martin. Lanthimos often lingers on Keoghan’s foxlike eyes, which at first appear distant, even impaired but slowly focus into the eyes of a trickster.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer would be a frustrating, even anger-inducing film if approached at face value. Its plot is mean-spirited and its protagonists alternate between being powerless and unlikable. However, considered as metaphor and commentary, it becomes powerful, funny and tragic. Despite its glossy contemporary sheen, this is a challenging modern wolf of a film in the sheep’s clothing of ancient tragedy. Creating it as such, Yorgos Lanthimos asks the viewer to consider whether society has evolved at all since Euripides.