An idyllic, picture-perfect American family is torn apart in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” By what or how — be it a curse, hypnosis, the paranormal, a virus or karma — remains unexplained. And that is what makes it among the most unsettling movies of the year.
The film is the latest uniquely austere, oblique allegory from filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos. Greek by birth but a London resident for the last six years, Lanthimos was nominated this year for an Oscar for the screenplay of his English language debut, “The Lobster.” His international breakthrough, 2009’s “Dogtooth,” was nominated for the Academy Award for foreign language film.
His latest stars Colin Farrell as Steven, a cardiothoracic surgeon, and Nicole Kidman as his wife, Anna, an ophthalmologist. They seem to have an enviable life for themselves in Cincinnati — Lanthimos shot in the U.S. for the first time — with their two children, 14-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and 12-year-old Bob (Sunny Suljic).
That is until Steven tries to mentor a fatherless 16-year-old boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan), whose presence sets ablaze the facades of their lives while a medical affliction begins to overtake the family.
Even working with stars such as Kidman and Farrell on the project, Lanthimos laughs at the idea that “Sacred Deer” is his most mainstream film.
“Many people wouldn’t agree with that,” he said. “My last couple of films have been English-language films with well-known actors, so that immediately makes them more mainstream, I guess.”
In conversation, Lanthimos is warm, pleasant and engaged. But don’t go to him looking to explain his work. With “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” Lanthimos and his frequent co-writer Efthimis Filippou have crafted another film that is in some ways as enigmatic to its creators as it is to audiences.
“I never try to analyze too much why am I saying this and what does it mean,” he said. “I do to a certain extent, because otherwise things would be incoherent and I don’t want that either. But I try to be as instinctive as possible and as spontaneous as possible, from the inception of what the idea is, to what the script is, to where you’re making the film and the people that you choose.”
To create an impossible equation with an impossible answer, basically.
Lanthimos allowed that part of the initial idea for “Sacred Deer” had to do with a young boy taking over control of a successful, older person’s life, and from there, “Much of it came out of the logic of how do you create a situation where it’s also ambiguous about who is responsible for what, and what is just, and how far are you willing to go, and can you blame any of the parties involved, and do you feel for any of the parties involved? To create an impossible equation with an impossible answer, basically.”
The director left things ambiguous even for the actors. Keoghan’s fearsome breakout performance of a disaffected teen as malevolent force didn’t come from the usual nuanced actor-director back-and-forth.
“He doesn’t work that way, as you would with other directors, where you ask them for reasons why and all these character questions,” said Irish-born Keoghan, also seen in Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” earlier this year. “Yorgos would shut you down because it’s not the way he works.
“The dialogue is pretty heavy and dark, so the less emotion you attach to it, the bigger the impact,” Keoghan added.
Farrell also starred in “The Lobster,” alongside Rachel Weisz and Léa Seydoux, and he leapt at the chance to work with Lanthimos again. For Farrell, the sharp anti-naturalism of Lanthimos’ preferred performance style is part of the challenge and the appeal of the collaboration.
“You’re just in the world — it’s bizarre, but it’s not,” said Farrell. “And yet the characters onscreen are acting like it’s normal. And that shakes us in a way. If the characters were resisting and shaking their fists to the high heavens, they’re doing the work for us. But the characters in Yorgos’ films don’t necessarily process things the way we are used to seeing people process things, or the way we process them ourselves, and I think that becomes unnerving.”
With their enigmatic feel and stylized performances, it can often be difficult to figure just what Lanthimos’ films are saying. To focus the point, the pre-Halloween release date is perhaps no accident coming from the savvy distribution company A24.
“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” premiered at Cannes and played at prestigious film festivals in Toronto and London, but it also screened at the genre-centric Fantastic Fest and Beyond Fest events. With its ratcheting intensity, it’s not exactly a horror movie, but it is terrifying experience.
“It’s got everything, doesn’t it?” said Keoghan. “It’s got comedy, it’s got horror, it’s a psychological thriller. I hope people see it in a different way.”
Kidman compared the movie to both the Greek myth of Iphigenia and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” Asked whether she would classify Lanthimos’ film as a dark comedy, a horror film or a family drama, she responded in an email, “Can I say it’s all three? I actually think some of the best of horror, comedy and drama have had all three, and ‘Sacred Deer’ is no exception. It’s how it all resonates. The funniest movies have been the most tragic, the most horrifying have had humor.”
While many international filmmakers become overwhelmed by the expansive landscapes while making their first films in America, Lanthimos captures something contained and bottled-up, a menace roiling to break free.
Not intending the film as a statement on America, Lanthimos said the setting was selected simply so that there could be less of a class distinction between Martin and the family in the U.S. than there would be in the U.K. He and producer Ed Guiney then traveled to a number of American cities looking for a suitable hospital for the production before deciding to shoot in Cincinnati.
“In the U.S., it felt like it would be much more open,” Lanthimos said. “I don’t pretend that I really know America, or England to be honest, but it’s just the way the film would be colored. The way it would be made in the U.S. versus the way it would be made in England made me chose the U.S. I didn’t want to make a gothic kind of film in England.”
Farrell is able to go into great detail on what “The Lobster” is really about in its exploration of love and couples and society. As for his new collaboration with Lanthimos, he had other thoughts.
“What ‘Killing of a Sacred Deer’ is about, I have no idea,” said Farrell. “But I read it, and the thought of going to work with Yorgos again was something that I was really into. In the 20 years I’ve been doing this, I can’t think of any director who’s more singular, more identifiable by what they do and how they do it than Yorgos is.”
Asked to explain just what happens to the “Sacred Deer” family, Lanthimos laughs again. Even for him, part of the point of the project was accepting the uncertainty.
“That’s how I decided to go ahead with it. I’m OK with not knowing,” he said. “I don’t think it can be resolved; in the film there isn’t like secret information we’re not sharing. You just try to make sure that everything was thought through thoroughly.
“One of the reasons I wanted the hospital to be this brand-new state-of-the-art hospital was so that your mind wouldn’t go to the solution of ‘they don’t know what they’re doing,’ ” he said. “I wanted people to be certain they are doing everything scientifically possible to figure out what is wrong with them, and they can’t figure it out. We tried to create a dead-end. So of course, I’m fine not knowing.”
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