The Killing of a Sacred Deer ***1/2
One Liner Review:
Creepy as hell, with a level of uncomfortableness that hasn’t been seen since the Shining, this one is pretty great up until the final act where it falls apart.
Here’s a movie that is actually a unique experience. When people talk about films that there is nothing else quite like, this is the sort of movie they are talking about. A film that isn’t afraid to be strange and uncomfortable, while also delivering on both horror and comedy. It’s a mashing of genres that you wouldn’t think could work so well. And it is absolutely creepy as hell. The movie is about a family that basically gets terrorized by a teenager who devises an evil plan against them. But this isn’t a stalker kind of movie. Instead, it’s about a certain fate that overtakes the family members, and trying to understand why. The way this film is shot and presented to us calls to mind movies like The Shining, with its hallways tracking shots and extreme, on- note-at–a–time, music. The atmosphere is really there. The story is pretty good too, up until the end, where it goes a little too far off the rails.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a hell of a movie. It’s a movie that, for three quarters of the way through, is absolutely brilliant. We’re talking about combining elements of creepy atmosphere from The Shining with elements of strange human behavior from Charlie Kaufman. But then after about three fourths of the way through, this thing just falls apart. Just like this director, Yorgos Lanthimos’, previous movie. The Lobster, this one is so good for a long while, until it becomes so bad. The guy just doesn’t know how to end movies and how to wrap things up. Even his follow up to this movie, The Favourite, leaves a little bit to be desired after the ending, and could have been better. But as far as his three movies go, the Killing of a Sacred Deer has the best first half of any of them, and really did a lot in a small amount of time.
The goal of the first half seems to be to make us curious. It tells us very little and shows us a hell of a lot. But what it all means is for us to figure out. Slowly. Piece by piece. The movie opens with a shot of the inside of a man’s body. We’re talking about a closeup on organs. It’s kind of disgusting. And we pull back to see doctors operating. Then we see the gloves and coverings go in the garbage. The surgery is done. Whatever happened happened. We are left with a closeup on the garbage, to show that even if the patient died, the doctors are moving on, but the remains will stay right here. From there we are on a walk through the hospital, moving down the corridors with two doctors who walk side by side. The camera is far away from them, moving backwards, to show us the full depths of the hallway. One thing Lanthimos is brilliant at is giving us views of rooms, and atmosphere. He did an amazing job with that in the Favourite, and here, in Sacred Deer, he captures these hospital hallways, just like Kubrick captures the hotel corridors in the Shining. The conversation between the doctors seems basic, about a watch and the specifics of it, including the wrist band. It has meaning, and we’ll find out what that meaning is very soon.
From here we move to a small diner. Steven (Colin Farrell,) the doctor who was asking the questions about the watch, is sitting at a table waiting. A boy named Martin arrives and sits down with him, and right away we can tell there’s something not right about this kid. He’s about sixteen years old, and his mouth always stays opened as he looks down at the table or around the room while speaking. He looks everywhere except for at the character that he is actually speaking too. And he gets up to go get some food before rejoining Steven at the table. Right away we are wondering who this kid is, and what his relationship to Steven is. And we get no answers. The movie wants to keep us wondering for as long as possible. We now move to a parking lot where Steven presents Martin with a present. It’s a watch. The same kind that was being discussed in the opening corridor walk. And there’s conversation about changing the wristband. Aside from the quick paced and somewhat awkward conversation, something else that we are getting here is some pretty intense and creepy music. We’re taking about low pitched strings being played and held out for as long as possible while the camera sits far away from the characters, slowly moving in, as if a voyeur watching these two from afar. It all works. We don’t know what it means yet, but we know it means something, and it certainly puts us on edge.
After this scene, it’s time to meet Steven’s family. This is dinner time around the table and we meet his two kids, Bob and Kim, as well as Steven’s wife, Anna, (Nicole Kidman.) The conversation is awkward and also seemingly meaningless, just like the earlier one about a watch. Here, it’s about a friend of the daughter, Kim’s, who wants to go into medicine, and about Bob cutting his hair. But again, nothing is meaningless here. The daughter’s friend story will come into play later when Steven lies about who Martin is to his colleague, and the hair situation will be a recurring strand throughout the movie, with Bob and his father being separated by the fact that Bob isn’t cutting his hair like his father wants. At the time of the dinner scene, however, we don’t know any of this. We are just meeting the family and listening to their awkward conversation.
It gets stranger. From seeing what Steven and his wife do upstairs in the bedroom to get turned on, (posing as an unconscious patient in need of a general anesthetic,) to a hand job in a car later on, to a crazy story that Steven tells his son about something he did to his father, when he was a kid and his father was sleeping, the sexual situations in this movie are beyond strange. But they are all just background noise to the main story that takes center stage about this boy, Martin, and his evil plan. At first he wants Steven to replace his dead father and have a relationship with his mother. And there’s a great scene where Steven comes to Martin’s house and is left on the couch next to the mother, (played by Alicia Silverstone,) while Martin goes to bed. That’s when the movie turns all Charlie Kaufman and the mother obsesses over Steven’s hands, first with conversation and then trying to kiss them repeatedly.
But when Steven rejects Martin’s mom, and then stops seeing Martin as much, (there’s a great scene of Martin sitting alone in the diner, calling Steven, who is at a bbq,) it is time for Martin to take action. This is where the psychotic comes out. One morning, the son, Bob wakes up and can’t move his legs. He is rushed to the hospital, but nothing appears to be wrong with him, that the doctors can tell. All the while leading up to this, we’ve been getting clues about who Martin is, and his relationship to Steven. When Steven invites Martin over to the house for dinner one night, the boy hits it off with both of Steven’s kids. Especially Kim. And that night, after Martin leaves, Anna asks Steven about how he knows Martin. Steven tells her that Martin was a patient of his. She asks if Steven went to the funeral of Martin’s father, and if so, how come she didn’t go with him. And Steven continues to make things up. He lies about Martin to his wife (the story of how he knows the boy,) and to his anesthesiologist friend at the hospital, (telling him that Martin is a friend of his daughters, who is interested in medicine, that story from the dinner table at the beginning, coming back again.)
But when Martin goes to see Steven to get his heart tested, we get even more clues. Martin talks about how his father shouldn’t have died, and should have come out of the surgery alive. And then it’s onto Bob and his legs. Nothing seems sinister about this until one day when Martin goes to see Bob in the hospital, and then sits down with Steven in the hospital cafeteria. This is where he tells Steven what it’s all about. His evil plan. Without giving any more away, let’s just say this is where the second half of the film begins, and it’s a whole other ball game. Suddenly we have a villain and a horrifying situation. The movie always felt like a horror film, with the creepy music and weird characters, but in the second half, it all comes out.
Before this point, things were just very strange. Characters talked in ways where they responded rapidly to each other, often in ways that seemed like they weren’t even listening to each other. It’s not that it’s unrealistic, but just that we’ve never really heard anything like it. The rhythm of conversation here is extremely unique. And the content of the conversation is too. We’re talking about things like, “our daughter just started menstruating,” to discussing how much hair someone has under their arms and comparing that amount of hair to that of other characters.
The way that the mystery of this film unravels is also pretty exceptional. The first act is all about the relationship between Steven and Martin. It ends after the scene of Martin coming over to the house for dinner, and then of Steven telling his wife a little about Martin. Of course, what he’s telling is all a load of lies, but that’s okay, we aren’t fooled, even if his wife is. The second act is about the friendship between these two characters starting to fall apart. This is when Steven goes to Martin’s house and rejects Martin’s mother. And the third act is where the real problem begins with Bob and his legs. Everything moves like clockwork here, with clues that are dropped like breadcrumbs, (does Kim know about Martin’s evil plan? Is that why she’s asking her mother if she is tired?) Everything is going smoothly and keeping us on the edge of our seats. And then things just start to spiral a little too far out of control.
This movie does a lot to give us the feel of The Shining, including a great Waldorf Astoria Hotel scene with Steven making a speech, and a ballroom that looks and feels right out that Kubrick film. The music is fantastically creepy, and the dialogue is utterly bizarre and interesting. This thing is firing on all cylinders. Every act takes us deeper down the rabbit hole. But then the movie just goes off the rails in the final scenes. It’s not that anything that happens is awful (although the final act of our protagonist is pretty bad,) but the problem is that this material just isn’t working at the same level of excellence that it had been for most of the way through. Maybe it’s as simple as that Steven is out of ideas, and also out of time, when he decides to do certain things at the end. He’s a man who has been pushed beyond his rational point. It’s certainly interesting, where the movie ends up, and also somewhat comedic. There are scenes that are so darkly funny they seem like they are out of a Wes Anderson movie, (like when Steven goes to the school of his children to ask the principal which one of his two kids is better all around.)This is a scary and dark movie with a comedic edge. The ending doesn’t measure up to all that came before it, but it’s still a pretty great film.