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Monday, October 23, 2017

Review: THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER asks fascinating moral questions, does little else

If circumstances forced you to choose a member of your family to kill or they'd all die, could you do it? Thus lies the central moral debate of Yorgos Lanthimos' The Killing of a Sacred Deer, his new film that provides a modern spin on the Greek myth of Iphigenia. A film following on the heels of his biggest mainstream success, 2016's The Lobster. That previous film was a masterwork of high concept absurdity, providing both a deeper look into the auteur's thoughts on relationships and their effect on the human condition, while also providing a sense of awkward, dry humor that made it the funniest movie Wes Anderson never made. It's a tough act to follow, and in this new mythic retelling, Lanthimos takes a turn for psychological horror, to decidedly mixed results. Admittedly, a film where your brother, who has been turned into a dog, is kicked to death is pretty horrific as well, but those type of wince-inducing moments are the full bore effect of this new effort.

Lanthimos gets to that feeling right away, with a long-held shot on a live performance of open heart surgery. We later learn that this is a patient of Steven Murphy's (Colin Farrell), but in the moment, you're initially intrigued by Lanthimos having the gumption to open with such a challenging visual, though suddenly it becomes an endurance test. I found myself looking away, no longer able to look at this beating heart as it's operated on, and I'm not exactly squeamish. And then I came to admire the effort anew, as the viewer is trapped with what makes the uncomfortable, but then a fourth wave of revulsion hit and I could take no more.

In a way, that discomfiting prologue acts as a bit of an overture for the entire affair, a movie that initially intrigues, and then languishes, re-centers itself and then eventually just turns into an outright slog into the finish.

The centerpiece of Sacred Deer is the relationship between Steven and Martin (Barry Keoghan). The former is a successful surgeon, the latter is a troubled young man that the good doctor has taken under his wing. They meet for lunch for a diner, go for walks at the harbor, Martin even shows up at the hospital to spend time with Steven. For a short while, this is all being kept a secret from his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), and his two children, Kim and Bob (Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic), and as the mind tends to do, you begin to wonder just why a grown man is spending so much time with this younger boy. Of course, that thought quickly subsides as their relationship becomes much clearer - tying directly into the opening scene. 

As it turns out, Martin is a disturbed young man, and because of Steven's actions, and perhaps even negligence, on the surgical table - Martin seeks reparations. And what initially presented itself as a questionable, but perhaps paternal relationship quickly turns into something far more insidious. His children both become ill with unidentifiable diseases, and Barry forces Steven to confront the demons of his past with an unimaginable choice, all for the sake of balancing the scales of justice.

As a central conceit that drives this 2 hour miserabilist foray, it's a good one. And from Sacred Deer's outset there's some of that same stilted uneasiness that's quickly becoming a hallmark of Lanthimos' oeuvre. There's a palpable sense of tension, and as it builds towards what the filmmaker's true aim is, that forward propulsion allows you to look past some of its deficiencies (almost every performance being given in the same flat monotone, as if each actor took their cues directly from Farrell's performance in The Lobster, can be a draining viewing experience). But trouble begins to really set in after that point. The moment Bob first starts to fall ill, and Anna tries to dig deeper into just what brought Steven and Martin together, a sense of inertness invades, and as Lanthimos and his actors wallow more and more into the film's ickier mire it starts to resemble the "cinema of toleration" that you'd see from Michael Haneke. 

The fact of the matter is, as The Killing of a Sacred Deer becomes more focused and veers away from the abstract nature of the film's central relationship, it becomes a good deal less interesting. By the time both Kim and Bob are dragging themselves across their living room floor, it starts to feel as if that's a visual representation for the entire affair at that point. A potentially intriguing film that becomes undone by its needs to enter the world of strict parable.

It's rare that a film this beautiful visually (Thimios Bakatakis channeling the clean white and echoey work of Kubrick) could be so achingly, unflinchingly sluggish, but here we are. By the time the credits roll, it's a relief, not because the mood is so oppressive, you just want the damn thing to end. A shame, as there's a good deal of below the line auditory and visual technical wizardry that's quite wowing, but some judicious trimming and focus would have gone a long way here. Better luck next time, Yorgos!

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