Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has a knack for creating hermetic, bleakly hilarious worlds. Returning to the Croisette this year with the The Killing of a Sacred Deer (his second film in English after The Lobster, which won the Grand Jury Prize in 2015), co-written with longtime collaborator Efthymis Filippou, Lanthimos renders a twisted suburban nightmare with the stuff of Hellenic myth. It's assaultive and deeply unpleasant, and nothing less than his Funny Games.
On paper, that’s a supremely promising conceit—the visceral impact of Haneke’s brilliant assault refracted through Lanthimos’ distinct, absurdist sensibility. For all its potential, however, there’s an odd lack of urgency to the first hour, centered on the daily rhythms of Steven, a cardiologist and surgeon played by Colin Farrell (here jettisoning the memorable paunch of The Lobster). He talks with colleagues, does his daily rounds at the hospital, and goes home to his ophthalmologist wife (Nicole Kidman) and two children: Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy). All this is rendered in a dry, deadpan tone, which as in The Lobster, situates the film in a world somewhat removed from our own. (Random, stilted conversations abound, such as a recurring debate on leather versus metallic watch straps.) The presence of Martin (Barry Keoghan), a teenage boy whose father died during a surgery Steven performed, and with whom Steven occasionally meets in secret, creates some intrigue. And there's a mounting sense of off-kilter dread that ramps up once Martin has dinner with the family and begins ingratiating himself to them. But it’s not till his intentions are revealed—which may constitute a spoiler, though it’s also the entire conceit—that the film starts to explore the limits of its hermetic universe.
Laid out in intentionally rapid-fire dialogue, Martin gives Steven a choice: kill one member of his own family, or have them each suffer three stages of punishment—an inability to walk, then to eat, and then bleeding from the eyes—culminating in death. Even after the consequences begin to manifest, however, as punishment for Steven’s having “killed” Martin's father— it's implied that Steven’s alcoholism was the cause—it’s only once the film relocates to the family's large suburban home that Lanthimos' vision really makes its mark.
The film's various formal tics, especially the relentless creeping follow-shots, finally achieve what the first hour only labors towards. The camera floats through the various rooms and hallways of the house, bodies moving through the space with ever-increasing urgency, the score jangling and strident. In its chilly formal precision and orchestration of a unified space, it's not unlike what Kubrick achieved in The Shining with the Overlook Hotel. That goes a long way to creating the unrelenting, often assaultive mood of the film—laced with dread and mounting horror. (Although even in this section, the varying performance styles, which range from droll deadpan to more conventional psychology, create a dissonance that blunts the emotional impact. Compare Farrell and Kidman during the early hospital scenes and the difference is stark.) The characteristically misanthropic humor, meanwhile, sharpens considerably as the film builds to the unimaginable choice. The children bicker with each other and attempt to ingratiate themselves with their father. Anne, although she doesn't go through the first two “stages,” nonetheless tries to convince her husband that killing one of the children would be the most logical decision.
What The Killing of a Sacred Deer does lack is a sense of the real, a resonance beyond the artificial world Lanthimos' has created. (“Do you understand? It’s metaphorical… It’s symbolic,” says Martin after an especially grotesque act of self-cannibalism.) And that, really, is what keeps this from reaching the visceral power of something like Funny Games. Dogtooth, despite its hermetic, airless confines, was still able to situate its twisted world within a larger universe. Indeed, the film concerns itself with those very tensions. But from Alps (2011) to The Lobster (2015) to this film, Lanthimos and his screenwriter have ventured into territory increasingly removed from reality. (Granted, that approach pays off in other ways.) “It's not that tragic,” someone says in a characteristic bit of black humor; and messed up as it may seem given the scenario, one may be inclined to agree. The sacrifice has been made; the blood has been spilt. But what exactly was it all for?