MUCH like Darren Aronofsky’s recent cinematic pot-stirrer, Mother!, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer (121 mins) is arthouse cinema with a capital “A”, for both its experimental and challenging artistic leanings and its A-list cast.
While the stars of last month’s controversial mind-boggler may have fooled certain audiences into expecting a straightforward thriller, anyone familiar with the work of Lanthimos, including last year’s absurdist fantasy, The Lobster, knows not to expect as much mainstream exposure for this one (and less audience backlash).
Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman lead a cast which also features a startlingly disturbing performance from relative newcomer Barry Keoghan, following the Dublin-born actor’s brief-but-promising turn in Christopher Nolan’s WWI epic, Dunkirk, back in July.
Much like Mother!, the often-surreal premise here also centres around a family, and while the narrative here may be more structurally coherent, this is often a far more difficult watch.
This is a film packed with as much gore as grace, both lyrical and bombastic. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is an experience at its most comic and absurd right before it hits its most disturbingly dissonant notes.
Farrell plays Dr Steven Murphy, a renowned cardiovascular surgeon living the suburbs of a peculiarly bland, could-be-anywhere American city (it’s Cincinnati, as it turns out).
At the beginning of the film, we learn that Steven maintains an odd friendship with a fatherless 16 year old boy, Martin (Keoghan).
After introducing Martin to his wife, Anna (Kidman) and two children (Kim Murphy, Sunny Suljic), things begin to take a far more sinister turn.
Martin’s very presence begins to erode their seemingly blissful suburban life – gradually, a past wrongdoing is revealed and a mysterious, tragic retribution enacted.
Much like his performance in The Lobster, Farrell delivers every line with a matter-of-fact, near-emotionless inflection, amplifying the uncanny nature of the surreal, not-quite-real-world in which The Killing of a Sacred Deer is set.
Indeed, with two performances of this kind under his belt, it would seem that Farrell is director Yorgos Lanthimos’ perfect cypher.
This is a world where each and every gap is filled with seemingly inane dialogue – where everyone always says exactly what’s on their mind, but never what they’re really thinking.
Consequently, there’s a lot to chip away at here before any sort of real-world allegory can be glimpsed.
One can simply revel in the absurdity and disgust in the latter-stage revelations of its central premise, or endure a punishing headache trying to draw out exactly what Lanthimos is trying to say.
We get the sense that the gestation period for Lanthimos’ work is rife with formed and half-formed ideas, all of which make their way into the finished product, lurking beneath the surface.
The allusion to Greek myth may seem baffling at first, but once the film’s bizarre twist in logic is revealed, the inevitable climax creeps toward us with a crushing sense of impending doom.
Every tragic moment, however, is accompanied by or closely followed with Lanthimos’ unique, often hilarious brand of absurdist humour.
Accordingly, throughout The Killing of a Sacred Deer, you’ll find yourself laughing, cowering, wincing in disgust and scratching your head in tandem.
Lanthimos’ remarkable ability to render all this madness seemingly logical is one of his most unique strengths as a director.
Skirting a line between reality and surreality, comedy and horror, the end result is a film that might send some cinemagoers packing, but will reward those who embrace the madness.