The Killing of a Sacred DeerCannes Film Festival 2017
The first image of Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film is a bloody, beating heart, surrounded by sterile blue sheets. It pulses violently – yet as gloved hands move across it, wielding sharp scalpels, it looks vulnerable, an image as biblically resonant as it is comically absurd. That’s perhaps the best way to explain the sensibility of Lanthimos, a director whose stilted, carefully controlled films can either be described as funny tragedies or deeply disturbing comedies. With The Killing of a Sacred Deer, he’s made something truly staggering, where the domestic and the banal are upended by a chilly, creeping terror of uncertainty and illness. It’s provocative and won’t be to everyone’s tastes – at the end of its first press screening it received a smattering of boos – but anyone prepared to buy into its jagged vision may emerge from it completely shaken.
Much as he proved in The Lobster, Colin Farrell is perfect as Lanthimos’s leading man, a surgeon called Steven. He sports a shaggy beard and has a seemingly ideal family life – he’s married to Anna (Nicole Kidman) and has two likeable, if imperfect, kids, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). But, every so often, Steven meets with Martin (Barry Keoghan) at a diner, an adolescent with a glazed look on his face. The mystery of their relationship is deepened by the fact that Steven lies about his identity to everyone who asks – a mystery that is invariably linked to something terrible that happened in the past.
What soon develops is a scenario worthy of Hitchcock, as Martin starts to invade their family life in increasingly uncomfortable ways. But the director presents things in his own inimitable way – something that combines the inspirations of Lynch, Kafka, and Jonathan Glazer into something exquisitely uneasy. He uses a distinctive combination of gliding tracking shots and fish-eye lenses to observe his characters as they walk through the shiny, bright corridors of a modern hospital, or through the lamp-lit interiors of their home – which is like seeing through the eyes of a floating spirit, ready to cast judgement on these weak mortals. The soundtrack is key, mixing bombastic classical music with writhing modern soundscapes; elevators and glass windows are thus transformed into objects of unfeeling menace. And the direction the film eventually moves in – at once violent, sad, and morbidly funny – makes it hard to know whether one should laugh, gasp, or cry at seeing this family ripped apart by forces close to home.
As with other work from hyper-disciplined aestheticists, this would all be for nought if its performers didn’t breathe life into things. Lanthimos has possibly found his soulmate in Kidman, whose hauteur-ish vulnerability is perfectly suited to the director’s emotion-drained dialogue patterns; whereas Farrell, Keoghan and the talented kids ensure that everything coheres to flawlessly gut-churning effect. It might be too soon to tell, but this already feels like a high point of the festival, and one of the best films that this world-class director has ever made.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer does not have a UK release date yet.
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Watch a clip from The Killing of a Sacred Deer here: