Teodosia Dobriyanova on Yorgos Lanthimos’s ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ (2017)
ONE OF THE MOST ANTICIPATED WORKS at London Film Festival 2017, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer is the director’s first American production and his biggest production so far; as such, it feels more accessible to a wider audience. This is not to say that The Killing of a Sacred Deer is either worse or better than Lanthimos’ previous features, but it does seem like the Greek auteur has accepted the challenge to employ a certain form of “Americanness” in his latest project.
The film opens as a suspenseful spectacle, with a black screen accompanied by the song of a choir. Then the black screen cuts to a close-up of heart surgery, the colour of flesh and blood being complemented by the blue cover that surrounds the patient’s open chest. Was this surgery successful? We are not to know. What we get to see next are the hands of a surgeon, trashing his blooded white gloves. This is Doctor Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a respected cardiologist with a thing for hand watches. As previously seen in The Lobster, there is a great degree of restraint in the voice of Farrell’s character: some automatic monotony that feels almost inhuman, and which serves as our first indicator that Lanthimos, once again, wants us to watch this film from a certain Brechtian distance. Another element that becomes something of a tendency in the director’s films, and serves the same purpose, is sex. There is something deeply disturbing in the sexual routine between Steven and his wife Anna (the brilliant Nicole Kidman) referred to as “general anaesthetic”. Anna lies down naked and motionless, as a patient on an operating table, while Steven massages his genitalia until he’s ready to ‘examine’ her.
Steven’s life evokes adjectives such as “normal” and “perfect” which, when in combination with Lanthimos, serve the purpose of a flashing red alarm forewarning us that, soon, something will go brutally wrong. But before that, Steven seems to have made it: middle-aged successful cardiologist who lives in a luxurious suburban house with his two children and a beautiful wife, herself a ophthalmologist and a dominating type who takes care of the household, and her husband’s well-being in a motherly way. The American dream.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer doesn’t lack comic episodes that can usually be found in sterile conversations about anatomical phenomena such as hair and periods. The comedy, however, often derives not from the discussed subjects, but the void of emotion in the voices of the characters. In that regard, Kidman’s character differentiates from the rest. Her voice seems more lively, more passionate than in anyone in the established universe. And, indeed, her character is the only one who seems to be fighting against the horror that would eventually enfold.
Overall, the Murphy’s evoke the vision of a perfect suburban family that we would often see in American nuclear cinema. As the film advances, our watches begin to tick, knowing it’s only a matter of time before this “utopia” falls apart. I remember myself sitting in the theatre, feeling an overwhelming distress – am I prepared enough for what might come next? But the film unfolds slowly, somewhat naturally and with a promised certainty, in the way that one would watch the rooting of a fruit that’s been left out for some time. Indeed, there is something rotten in the whole picture, a piece that doesn’t quite match the utopian puzzle Lanthimos has been putting together before us. It’s Steven’s secret friend, a teenage boy called Martin (Barry Keoghan) who meets up with on Steven on a regular basis at a cafeteria near the hospital where he works.
Whatever this ambiguous relationship is, there is something about Martin that evokes psychotic yet inaccessible mind of Robert Walker’s Bruno in Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951). As Bruno, Martin becomes the plot-driving element of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, with suspense slowly escalating in every scene that accommodates him. Martin is the one who brings an archetypal danger alert to the film, although the latter has been present since the first scene in Lanthimos’ new work, through the film’s astounding cinematography. With his 35mm camera, DoP Edward Lachman uses Classical Hollywood conventions and modern techniques with equal fluency, creating an uncanny work of art – simultaneously comforting and disturbing, inviting you to make assumptions, but also taking you into the unknown. Wide angle lens’, low angles, and shots that suggest a creeping omnipresence, all accompanied by choral songs, suspenseful piano sounds and hysterical violins. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is the kind of film I imagine Alfred Hitchcock would’ve made – from the unsettling cinematography and haunting mood, to the almost psychotic soundtrack and ever-lasting suspense.
After we came out of the screening, my friend beside me said something: “Lanthimos is one of those directors whose films could easily take place in the same universe”. The Killing of Sacred Deer doubtlessly joins the strange world of disturbia Lanthimos has been building for us, but it also spends a great deal on exploring Americana. From the image of the nuclear family, through Hitchcockian elements of suspense, to cinematography evoking the Classical movie era, and shots resembling the paintings of Edward Hopper, Lanthimos seems to be dedicating quite some time and effort to paint us the perfect picture of the American idea, only to destroy it before our eyes.
After all, the “Weird Wave Greek” director has been demonstrating that every utopia is a masked dystopia in the making. So when The Killing of a Sacred Deer re-explores this thought, this time in the context of American suburbia, conclusions are left to us.