By Liam Lacey
In his fifth film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the Greek provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster) takes aim at the softest and fattest of targets - the successful, self-satisfied, American middle-class family.
The results are impressive, if somewhat disappointing. Still, the journey’s fun until you get there.
"We all have lovely hair," says Kidman's character, as the family around sits around the dinner table of their large suburban home in a modern, unidentified American city. It's true; they do have lovely hair and you know it's going to get mussed.
But that’s not the opening scene. The opening is a close-up of open heart surgery, finished when Steven takes off his bloody gloves. That’s followed by the doctor and anesthesiologist walking down a hallway discussing wristwatches twigs us to a certain dream-logic at work. Hearts and watches: Things that tick until they stop.
At a diner, Steven meets a teen-aged boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan). Steven is friendly but cautious. The boy, with his hooded inquisitive blue eyes seems sweet and slightly simple.
Who is the he? A son from a hidden affair? Later, we learn that the boy indeed has a claim against Steven, the details of which are best kept secret. The film's title refers to Greek mythology; King Agamemnon's killing of a deer sacred to the goddess, Artemis, who demands a sacrifice in return.
Initially, it's all coldly funny. The characters tend to talk as though they’ve been hypnotized. The dialogue is absurdist, mixing non-sequiturs, extreme literalism and banalities. Sex takes some odd turns. "General anesthetic?" asks Anna before she pretends to pass out so Steve can have sex with her. When Steven visits Martin's house, the boy's widowed mother (Alicia Silverstone) gushes her admiration for the surgeon's "beautiful hands" and then begins sucking his fingers. When Steven pulls himself away, she insists: "You're not leaving until you try my tart.”
There’s is, throughout, a promise of something insidious afoot. The premise, about a proud doctor's undoing, echoes Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, which also co-starred Nicole Kidman. As well, the visual style - with its high camera angles, and long tracking shots through the hospital corridors - suggest The Shining. And the use of one of Kubrick's favourite composers, György Ligeti, confirms the connection, catnip for fans of high ironic film style.
The gears shift and the engines of fate rev up in the film’s second hour: When rebuffed, the implacable Martin turns from being increasingly demanding of Steven’s time and turns magically malevolent. The Murphy family are subjected to torments that grow progressively cruel and arbitrary.
While the impeccable filmmaking technique never flags, The Killing of a Sacred Deer feels squeezed, emotionally numb and alienating in not a good way. This is not cathartic awe and pity of classical tragedy so much as the grisly monotony of watching meat run through a grinder. You are not leaving until you try the tart. You'd really rather have nothing to do with the tart. Could someone please put that damned tart away?
The Killing of a Sacred Deer: Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou. Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Alicia Silverstone and Bill Camp. Opens Friday, November 3 at Cineplex Varsity and CIneplex Queensway Cinemas.
INTERVIEW: YORGOS LANTHIMOS
Film festival interviews may not be the idea places to plumb the nature of tragedy, but entertainment journalists must make do.
A group of reporters sits in a semi-circle of chairs in a hotel room at the Toronto International Film Festival. In front of them sits Yorgos Lanthimos, the bearded, amiable 44-year-old Athens-born director, and 25-year-old Irish actor, Barry Keogh, who plays the teen villain of The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Our session lasts 15 minutes, some of it spent kibitzing between the director and actor. In his casual, friendly way, Lanthimos shoots down a few critical misconceptions about his films, and emphasizes the importance of script over direction and instincts over influences and ideas.
As a director, he says: "I never give directions to the actors to be funny or dramatic. A lot of it is there in the script. I want the actors to be present and things come out and you get a tone. You can only shift things a little bit here and there."
As well as directing dance videos and commercials, Lanthimos got his start working in experimental theatre. I ask him about the influence of the theatre of the absurd on his writing. Not a factor, he says.
"Theatre just happened to me basically. I never intended to do theatre and I wanted to learn how to work with actors mostly. So, I did a few plays, and it was an interesting experience. I learned a lot. The writing comes from Efthymis Filippou as well, who has a very unique voice. And my taste as well, and way of understanding things. It's just natural for us."
If it isn't in the script, says, Lanthimos, it isn't up for speculation. When someone asks about the cause of two characters' illness, he says, "No, no. That's exactly the stuff we don't talk about. I also know only what's there in the script. If you ask me, what does it matter and why should I know? It's not important in this film and we just try to stay away from it."
Do critics get him wrong? Sometimes. As a practice, says Lanthimos, "I try to construct my films in a way that is quite open, so people can bring in their own thoughts, what their experiences are, what their views are.
“The funniest thing I've heard about this film, and about The Lobster as well, is that these films are about the Greek crisis. Can you imagine if you didn't know I was a Greek filmmaker, how in the world could you go to that place?"