Cannes 2017: Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer

On Film / The Daily — May 22, 2017

Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer “makes the absurd, amazing The Lobster seem like a warm and cuddly experience by comparison,” declares Jessica Kiang at the Playlist. “A film of clean hands, cold heart, and near-Satanic horror, it was garlanded with boos at its Cannes press screening and it is absolutely fucking brilliant. Part of what makes its deep-freeze, suburban soul-sickness so effective is that, although the studied formalism, deterministically stiff performance style and deliberately flat line readings are instantly recognizable Lanthimosian traits, the film is set in a world that’s only a plate-glass sliver of weirdness away from our own.”

“Reuniting with his Lobster director, Colin Farrell plays a surgeon, husband, and father of two whose placid domestic life is slowly, insidiously disrupted by the persistent demands of a teenage boy (Barry Keoghan) hovering in his periphery,” writes the A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd. “It’d be unfair to say much more about the relationship, but the film unfolds like an alternate-reality stalker thriller, like a twisted slow-burn Cape Fear, only with an element of the fantastic that Lanthimos boldly refuses to explain. . . . Nicole Kidman, in one of her gazillion appearances at this year’s Cannes, finds plenty of human dimension as the doctor’s increasingly infuriated wife.”

“This is Lanthimos’s most scattered and sedate film, but it’s his scariest as well,” finds IndieWire’s David Ehrlich. “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 an intriguing, disturbing, amusing twist on something which in many ways could be a conventional horror-thriller from the 1970s or 1980s, or even a bunny-boiler nightmare from the 90s,” suggests the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “There is a strident orchestral score, nightmarish fish-eye shooting angles, down low and up high, and people walking along corridors in such a way that makes forward movement feel like slo-mo falling.”

“In the tradition of Ringu or the Final Destination films, it first tells you what dreadful fate awaits its characters, then lets you spend the rest of the film agonizing over when it will go down,” writes Emily Yoshida at Vulture. “The cinematography, by frequent collaborator Thimios Bakatakis, is exquisitely icy and built on long, slow pushes and pulls. I’m not sure if Lanthimos has much to say here that hasn’t already been said by Luis Buñuel or Michael Haneke (at this very festival, no less) or any other bards of bourgeois hypocrisy, but still: To see an unfettered nightmare like this from such an idiosyncratic director feels like a cruel treat, and a welcome stylistic stretch.”

For the Irish TimesDonald Clarke, this film’s “nightmarish, Old Testament horrors are unshakable. . . . Lanthimos is not quite a surrealist, but his universe is sufficiently skewed for the main characters to accept the logically outrageous when it arrives. Lanthimos’s tone is closer to that of Pinter than Ionesco.”

Jonathan Romney for Screen: “Another disconnect, characteristic of Lanthimos, comes from the language, with outright banalities (running-gag conversations about wristwatches) being delivered by the cast with the same matter-of-fact impassivity as life-or-death themes or outrageous transgressive confessions. This leaves us wondering whether the small talk is just inconsequential or obscurely significant—a dilemma we’re teased with when, after one character commits an act of self-harm, he announces, ‘It’s metaphorical.’”

In the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney notes that “the escalating horror as the action continues is magnified in its power by being so muted. Lanthimos and sound designer Johnnie Burn (whose work on Jonathan Glazer's spellbinding Under the Skin was similarly essential to the movie's hold) layer in eclectic music choices, from jagged punk to portentous classical to the abstract strings and percussion pieces of Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina and the haunted sounds of György Ligeti.”

“As allegories of extreme discomfort go, this one is masterfully orchestrated,” agrees Variety’s Peter Debruge. What’s more, “Farrell and Kidman are astonishingly gifted at playing the subtext of every scene.”

Updates, 5/23: “If Kubrick was the primary influence in the film’s first half, the second one owes an even bigger debt to Haneke—Funny Games is practically a template,” writes Giovanni Marchini Camia at the Film Stage. “Martin’s torture of Steven’s family and its consequences are so contrived and inordinately vicious, one can’t help but be disgusted by whoever took the time to think up atrocities this elaborate, never mind realizing them with such evident glee. It’s not like Lanthimos’s previous work didn’t have its share of horrors, but as distasteful as those films got, at least there was always a discernible point: the violence fueled a vehement social critique. Even the most generous of viewers couldn’t come up with a legitimate reason for the vileness on show here, other than pure and simple sadism.”

The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin will grant that it’s “wildly uncomfortable to watch,” but: “It’s also venomously funny. Lanthimos has long been intrigued by the comedic power of the uncanny and its close relationship with dread, and both sensations are in constant flux here . . . When absurdism feels this wrong, you know it’s being done right.”

“There are a few tears here and there, some bursts of bracing anger, but Sacred Deer is largely an emotional void,” finds Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson. “Which is certainly deliberate, but I nonetheless found myself yearning for some sense of connection, of empathy.”

“What the film lacks,” agrees Marc van de Klashorst at the International Cinephile Society, “is an emotional heart. Lanthimos consciously keeps the family at arm’s length, possibly trying to prevent the film from turning into a straightforward revenge flick. This makes it impossible to become fully invested in the family dilemma, but given the choices Steven and Anna have to make, their hell is not hard to imagine even without Lanthimos underlining it.”

More from John Bleasdale (CineVue, 4/5), Eric Lavallée (Ioncinema, 2.5/5), Fabien Lemercier (Cineuropa), Steve Pond (TheWrap), and Barbara Scharres (RogerEbert.com).

Updates, 5/24: “The film's various formal tics, especially the relentless creeping follow-shots, finally achieve what the first hour only labors towards,” writes Lawrence Garcia in the Notebook. And in the end: “The sacrifice has been made; the blood has been spilt. But what exactly was it all for?”

“Farrell's varied performance effectively grounds The Killing of a Sacred Deer in ways that Lanthimos's characteristically atmospheric set pieces simply do not,” argues Simon Abrams at the House Next Door.

For Sight & Sound editor Nick James, Deer is, “sadly, a tedious exercise in morbidity chic.”

Time Out’s Dave Calhoun: “As storytelling, it’s pristine: it moves like a reptile playing the long game. But its cruelty is tough to bear.”

At ScreenAnarchy, Shelagh Rowan-Legg finds that “with humor so black it's often difficult to laugh, and a strangeness that feels far more real (and thereby more frightening) than in his previous films, Lanthimos’s warped vision finds an unsettling but effective home in the horror tropes explored in The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

“When we started writing the script and thinking about the story, we discovered there were some parallels with the tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides, and I thought it would be interesting to have a dialogue with something that is so ingrained in Western culture,” Lanthimos tells Fabien Lemercier at Cineuropa. As for film in Greece again, “Yes, why not? I’ve filmed in seven countries, and each time has been different. I used to be quite negative about going back to Greece and making another film there, but in hindsight, I’ve realized that it gave me a certain kind of freedom.”

Updates, 5/26: “Imagine a remake of Cape Fear shot like Kubrick’s The Shining, with Max Cady recast as a child, and you’ll have some idea of the strangeness of Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” suggests Bilge Ebiri, dispatching back to the Village Voice. “The film has quickly proved to be one of the most divisive titles at this year’s Cannes festival, thanks to its delirious story and aggressively arty stylization. It’s the kind of picture where emotions are almost (almost) always played in cool, deadpan fashion—even as people’s lives collapse around them—and narrative logic is strained until it goes fully absurd. But I was mostly charmed (is that the word?) by this poisoned curio.”

“Like Lanthimos’s 2009 art-house breakthrough, Dogtooth, still his finest and most sustained achievement, The Killing of a Sacred Deer offers a grimly funny reminder that home is where the horror is,” writes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. “It also subscribes to one of these festival’s dominant themes, evident also in Michael Haneke’s Happy End and Ruben Östlund’s The Square: the moral idiocy of a privileged, dishonest white man whose actions will inevitably take a toll on his young children. Same message, wildly divergent executions.” Deer “is sensationally well made, close to Kubrickian in its visual and sonic precision. It is also, to these eyes, an increasingly and dispiritingly empty provocation as it goes on.”

In Kidman’s performance, Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan and Jada Yuan find “the protective-mom instincts from Lion, the unreadable ambivalence of Birth, and finally the go-for-broke ambition of To Die For. It’s hard to imagine the film working without her.”

Update, 5/31: “This movie pissed a lot of people off when it played,” notes Blake Williams, writing for Filmmaker, “likely because its sadistic scenario never amounts to more than sadism for its own sake; to counter a choice line from late in the film—‘It’s a metaphor, it’s symbolic’—there is nothing metaphorical or symbolic here. It is what it is, present while it’s there, gone when it’s not, and you either laugh along or curse its existence.”

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