There is no deer in Yorgos Lanthimos’ film, certainly as cryptic and roughly as zoological as his previous work The Lobster, but there are obvious shadows of the multi-millennia old tale about King Agamemnon, Artemis, and other figures from which the film draws its title. The specifics of that tale don’t necessarily bear on this film outside of imbuing it with a generally moralistic view of eventual comeuppance, a sense of balance in the world rooted in often-painful eye-for-an-eye moral righteousness. But the millennia-old connections are our earliest rumor of another key feature of this film, perhaps its defining paradox: despite its relentlessly modernistic awareness of dissociated subjectivity and uncertain truth, a whiff of extreme classicism suffuses this picture, as it so obviously infuses Lanthimos’ obvious aspirational dreams, his affectations to be part of the canon of Greek Drama with capital letters. Despite his mobilization of hyper-modern techniques and assumptions about the level of punishment his characters can take on-screen, this is a director who clearly doesn’t belong in the 21st century.
On the surface, Lanthimos’ eccentricities accrue into a supremely potent maelstrom of ill-tempered bad taste, affording his film a cadaverous quality that overflows as a sublime maliciousness. The situation – and it is mostly just a situation – is that Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), Cincinatti doctor extraordinaire, lives with stentorian wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and son Bob (Sunny Suljic), although he seems to spend most of his time with Martin (Barry Keoghan), meeting on rooftops, in parking lots, or in the clean, ascetic halls of his hospital. Marshalling every possible assumption in the world that they are romantically or sexually involved, the film laces every meeting between the two with an extraordinarily uncanny malignancy. We will soon learn what specifically connects the two. But that’s more a distraction than a centerpiece for the film. What matters most is Keoghan’s wonderfully unsophisticated, open face that suggests both innocence and cunning, not to mention his canted body angles and his laconic, affectless personality, all of which suggest a hamster hiding a fox.
All of which is to say, Lanthimos’ is a purely affective tale, aesthetic in its inclinations and resolutely classical in its ambitions. Thematically, it’s a total wash, but it doesn’t strive for theme when it can ride the coattails of pure formal vigor and aesthetic insidiousness. More than even The Lobster, futility greets any attempt to read a complex argument into The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which derives a sense of tragic futility from the Euripidean myth that serves as its nominal inspiration, albeit little else. But that’s the point. The film weighs down on us with a sense of impending doom and the astonishing brutality of our mortal coils, reminding us, at the cost of any other sensations, that we are prey to forces beyond our control.
At the same time, if the moral parable that appears to be at the heart of the film is to be taken seriously, then we are all ultimately our own worst enemies, and everything ultimately comes back to our own mistakes. But calling Killing a moral parable – even implying that it takes the implications of its narrative seriously – is a gross miscarriage of cinematic viewership. Certainly, the narrative “develops” in an Aristotelean sense, but the film is less interested in the classical dramatic principles of narrative cause and effect than in its accumulation of moods. Or, rather, it’s accumulation of mood, since the thought of an alternative texture seems antithetical to the film’s governing principles. One suspects Lanthimos might view anything outside of his authoritarian control as a corrupting impurity.
In principle, pure affect is a reasonable cinematic goal, a humbling and possibly essential reminder that cinema approaches us bodily as well as mentally, that visuals cast us adrift on currents of emotional possibility, invoking dreams and desires, rather than merely clarifying the external world or laying in wait, tied down, for semiotic interpretation to arrive and “unpack” them. But, if affect is his central principle, the dominant altitude Lanthimos maintains throughout the film is that of a somewhat stuffy, if vigorous, formal exercise, a hermetic lab experiment designed to hurt, except it’s all too conspicuously designed. The early moments of The Killing of a Sacred Deer thrum with a covert, conspiratorial air, but there’s nothing subtle about the baroque lengths Lanthimos will go to disturb, to bruise your soul. That’s fine in theory, but there’s little sense of perspective here, with any and all distant rumors of tonal undercurrents flattened wholeheartedly by the film’s supreme commitment to its own governing mood.
The film’s possible skepticism about personal achievement, genuine moral reflection, and even atonement is valuable, to a point. Many films trace tales of chance and luck, dealing entirely in moral relativism, or contrarily contour virile figures hell-bent on personal accumulation, showcasing the virility of their protagonists like moral currency. Thus, films which eschew either amoral chaos or a moral universe rooted in personal agency and virility have their ethical cachet as well. But Killing is drained of any will to explore these concerns, all of this thematic possibility apparently replaced with an astonishing surfeit of body-hair conversation. The film instead thrives on faint whispers of dread that snowball into pulverizing punishment, a kind of grimy torture porn that is both drastically more artistic and somewhat less honest, or more cloistered, because it strips away even an ounce of grime.
It is, admittedly, astonishingly committal to its sense of single-minded compulsions, carving out our dissatisfaction with the blunt, foreboding quality of a root canal, surpassing any hope of safe refuge a la, say, Wolf Creek, a film which achieves everything Lanthimos desires but isn’t enrobed in a faux-ennobling aura of decorum to retain the pristine illusion of “class”. In place of that clear-hearted, cynical howl about social rot, Killing’s undying commitment to its mood – all canted angles, piercing and atonal sounds, aquarium-shots, and vigorously-roaming cameras peering into the unchecked regions of human negligence and dispassion – suggests filling out a checklist of dissociating stylistic techniques rather than playing in a toy-box of cinematic possibility or engaging in thornier technical gambits of more uncertain, and thus more rewarding, results.
In other words, I harbor the suspicion that the film isn’t courageous enough to feel anything about its world, to have a worldview, because it is so busy imagining what we ought to feel like. It is so busy considering how to pull our strings that it forgets to navigate its own strings, or to feel itself. Either the film’s highest summit or its central failing is that one is not sure whether Lanthimos is reacting with giddy elan and a mischievous, impish grin, or sour and sober observation, or a cruel and smug detachment regarding his characters’ misfortune. It suggests not so much filmmaking as divine intervention to achieve a moral universe or a demonic cascade of unholy retribution but a semi-purposeless note-taking of terror.
To this extent, I’m told Lanthimos is the next voice in high-art cinema, and as a card-carrying member of the Antonioni and Argento parties alike, I remain slightly unconvinced by the essentially pantomimed, studied air of Lanthimos’ films, less poetically funereal than cloyingly monotone. Possibly attempting to measure out appropriate doses of those two earlier master directors, mixing the ice-cold, ennui-shrouded gaze of Antonioni with the hot-fire cinematic combustion of Argento in search of a homogeneous solution between the two, Lanthimos remains too careful, too cleanly-calibrated to suggest either director’s emotional quotient. Those earlier directors understood cinema as an experiment in humanity, as a sort of negative mirror-image of reality designed not only to reflect – to document – but to refract – to imagine, to reflect on, to produce – quotients of existential human uncertainty in modern times. They saw cinema as feats of the imagination, a canvas of what humanity can imagine for itself, and what conditions keep us from imagining certain possibilities. Lanthimos, not unlike the student who received the highest grade ever in his film class, seems to think of film not as a conduit for personal expression but as a channel toward external guarantee of his feats of cinematic potency, as a display only of that he knows how to make movies, not why he wants to make them.
Score: 6/10 (I mean, it’s very technically accomplished)