Thursday 30 November 2017

The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (2017) - Movie Review

Mahan’s Media, at its core, is me spilling my post-film thoughts into writing. Sometimes, the film being discussed tries so little that thematic analysis is barely required, while other times, I go out of my way to bring up what I think is relevant to the conversation. The Human Centipede III led me to talking about the U.S. Constitution, Hotel Transylvania 2 got me thinking about the modern attitude to the classic Universal monsters, and Aaaaaaah! gave me an excuse to polish off my high school drama education; basically, I write about whatever I want to write about at that given moment.
However, while I do pride myself on being able to discuss media at this level, I will always admit that I am hardly a seasoned expert on any of this. Any grand statements I have made in the past concerning the human condition are mostly personal observations and whatever unifying theories I’ve expressed to explain certain films could very well be 100% incorrect. Every word I’ve ever written here and elsewhere is done with the possibility that I could be talking completely out of my arse on the subject; all I care about is being able to explain the reasons why I hold those opinions, not necessarily whether they are “correct”. I just say what I believe to be true, and if I’m wrong, so be it; I learn from it and move forward.
I bring all this up because, every time I get to a film of this nature, I get self-conscious that maybe I’m just too stupid to get it. I’m willing to bet that this is a common reaction to today’s subject, but I’ve never let that stop me before. Hope you’re ready to get both confused and depressed.

The plot: Surgeon Steven (Colin Farrell) has befriended teenager Martin (Barry Keoghan), the son of one of his former patients. However, as he introduces Martin to the rest of his family, his son Bob (Sunny Suljic), daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) start to fall mysteriously ill. Martin reveals to Steven that his family will surely die… unless he makes a terrible choice.

Like The Lobster, the acting here is pretty much pitch-perfect in terms of authorial intent. Unlike The Lobster, it’s not nearly as uniform so I actually have a chance to isolate the actors individually. Farrell isn’t so much morally ambiguous as he is quietly psychotic, managing to make his callous and frequently jarring dialogue feel both unsettling and natural. Kidman, in easily one of her best performances in years, plays the wife in a similar vein to Lady Macbeth in how controlling and steadfast she is, even considering how often her character is deliberately ignored by everyone else.
Keoghan… yikes. While he does exceptionally well as the vindictive linchpin that holds the story together, there’s also something to be said about how immediately unnerving he is as an on-screen presence. There’s no moments of extended roaring or even anything that comes across as that malicious in tone when he says them, and yet in that seeming tranquillity, he gives a performance that would rival the greats in terms of captivating villains.

Raffey Cassidy follows up on that potential I saw back in Tomorrowland, embodying a lot of the under-the-surface feminism of Lanthimos’ oeuvre while delivering her lines with an almost-frightening efficiency. Sunny Suljic does well as the baby brother, Bill Camp likewise is very good in his few crucial moments, and Alicia Silverstone… you know, after seeing her be the only stable character in The Long Haul, seeing her sucking on Colin Farrell’s fingers here isn’t nearly as left-field as it probably should be. Nevertheless, for as little time as she gets on-screen, she adds to the immense feeling of dread generated by the others.

Before getting into the thick slab of concrete that is this film’s script, let’s get into the technical side of things first. After all, what use is a mystery if it isn’t presented in a way that makes us care for the answer? Visually, this film is drop-dead gorgeous. Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis must have had Kubrick’s The Shining on repeat in-between production slots because there is a lot of Kubrick worship going on with this camera work. The lingering shots of people walking down hallways, the use of negative space to isolate characters in open spaces, the framing designed to draw the audience’s attention to a ‘hole in reality’; I’d be complaining about this being a copy-and-paste job if it didn’t still look amazing on-screen. That, and this has some of the smoothest zoom-ins I’ve seen in far too long.
There’s also the soundtrack brought together by Sarah Giles and previous Lanthimos collaborator Nick Payne, which is basically Lanthimos’ entire approach to storytelling translated into music: A seemingly mundane thing pushed to its furthest extreme. We don’t hear a piano; we hear the dusty and rickety foundations of the instrument wheeze notes into the ether. We don’t hear percussion; we hear drums reverbed into oblivion. We don’t hear strings; we hear violins screaming at the top of their lungs. We don’t hear music; we hear an orchestra on the verge of a mental breakdown. A rather fitting bedrock for a film all about mentally-scarred individuals.

Following on The Lobster, this film’s writing is also comprised of characters who are inhumanly blunt and to-the-point in terms of conversation. There is an inherent lack of ambiguity about what is being said, from Martin explaining the painfully simple reason why he takes the actions he does to Steven talking to his son about a time when he gave his own father a handjob. Yeah. I should point out here that, even though the dialogue itself is very direct, the resulting effect that those words leave on the story isn’t nearly as clear. Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou treat the audience like Hansel and Gretel, leaving behind a trail of breadcrumbs in the words being said to lead us to an answer.
It is frankly astonishing how much seemingly minor bits of conversation end up explaining especially crucial aspects of the story, like how Martin is even capable of what he is shown doing or how repeated ideas and behaviours end up affecting certain characters in the story. With a film this dense, coming from a director this unapologetically quirky, relying on small details isn’t a bad way of going about psychological storytelling. It’s just that some of the pieces feel too far out of reach to really get their ultimate importance, especially after a single sitting.

But I will say this: Yorgos Lanthimos is undeniably a storyteller who operates within thematic labyrinths and a darker-than-pitch sense of humour, but he is no way subtle. His most recent works all seem to exist as mass exaggerations of relatively familiar material. Dogtooth took a family drama into the realms of despotic nightmares and The Lobster turned an ostensible romantic-comedy into a scathing breakdown of how society values and grades relationships; the same has to apply here. And without too much effort on my already-throbbing brain, I think I’ve got this one. 
This is a revenge thriller in its fundamentals, complete with the moral ambiguity between the revenge-seeker and its chosen victim to keep things interesting. However, literally from the first frame of the film that isn’t complete darkness, the film’s central push is made clear. The film opens on a scene of open-heart surgery, in the first of many instances of jarringly grotesque imagery, and from then on, the film takes Lanthimos’ same approach to domestic and romantic life and directs it to questions of morality and mortality. What is the worth of a loved one’s life, the figurative sacred deer?

Underneath the continuing themes of forced feminine passivity and figureheads of toxic masculinity, Lanthimos juxtaposes Martin’s thirst for justice (or, at least, as close to it as he can get) and Steven’s profession as a surgeon to query about death, its circumstances and its repercussions for all involved. How is dying on an operating table due to human negligence different to dying on the floor due to human malice? Is there even a difference to begin with? How does one attempt to replace what has been lost, shown here through Martin shaping Steven into a surrogate father figure and his goal to make Steven feel the same loss that he did? Is it even possible to properly replace a loved one in the first place? Much like Lanthimos’ other films, there are no direct answers given. We are presented with the evidence as shown through the actions and statements of the characters, and we are given ideas to chew on, but the film never flat-out declares that it knows the solution. Because Lanthimos, in case his complexities haven’t already clued you in on this, doesn’t like easy answers.

It’s the separation between the pretentious and the profound: One presents answers to complex questions under the impression that they are absolutely correct, while the other presents rational possibilities while admitting that such things aren’t so easy to resolve. This is why all the confusion still going on in my head as I write this doesn’t bother me like it probably should: Not only has Lanthimos made no such pretences of being all-knowing, but he presents his findings in a way that makes me want to put the pieces together. In short, he does what any good artistic filmmaker should.

All in all, while somewhat derivative in its visuals and impossibly dense in its scripting, this is a maze that is worth getting lost in. The acting is absolutely brilliant, showing the potential within its performers that I honestly thought would be lost to the casting room floor, the visuals pop in just the right ways, even when showing truly inexplicable things, the music raises tension like few other things on this earth and the story, while difficult to cut through at first, still rings true to the extremist and darkly comical stylings of Yorgos Lanthimos. This is a film that will likely set off pretention alarms for certain audiences, but for those who don’t mind putting some extra effort in, I would be insane not to recommend this.

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