This will be a pretty scatter-brained post. The Killing of a Sacred Deer reminds me most of Dogtooth, of all the Lanthimos films I’ve seen. The intruder scenario (one day I’ll have another/better (is there a better?) comparison than Teorema but it comes to me immediately again with this film. Maybe it’s just that Pasolini seemed so interested also in the dynamics of an enclosed society under the microscope…), the family, the clean mise-en-scène are all reminiscent.
I recently read an interview with David Fincher where he mentions the “wide angle wit” of the Coen brothers (and in reference to Soderbergh). I love this line. I think Yorgos Lanthimos has wide angle wit, but in a different way. Where I imagine that Fincher was referring to action that takes place towards and away from the camera which is emphasized in unexpected ways because of the wide angle lens, Lanthimos’ wide angle is mostly mood. It feels like surveillance at times, something I was struck by in the really early scene of Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell) and Matthew (Bill Camp. I love Bill Camp!) walking together down the hospital hallway. They seem pushed so far away as the walls of the hall bulge around them. Certainly a product of the lensing, but it also felt like we were a surreptitious drone above them. I imagine that Lanthimos also likes the distancing effect. Because of the affected performances he’s after and gets I think we’re pretty off-kilter throughout his films. That lens choice keeps us further than arm’s length.
It’s hard to talk about a Lanthimos film without talking performance. Kind of like Kaurismaki, who of course I mentioned when talking about The Lobster. But I think that comparison is a little facile. Lanthimos’ characters do show real emotion. I think now I’d characterize these performances as frank and blunt. It’s not only what the characters discuss, it’s that very little seems of any more important than anything else (in terms of delivery). They discuss things like menstruation and ejaculation with the ease of talking about the weather. There’s also the pretty rapid pace of dialogue, especially from Stephen and Martin (Barry Keoghan) that feels so confident.
I love these performances. Keoghan is like a man-child. It’s pretty damn inspired casting. And Farrell just seems to get Lanthimos. It’s their second great collaboration in a row.
When watching the film I was really struck by two cuts. I need to watch it again to exactly figure out why (and to be able to describe them better). One is to Martin and Stephen’s daughter, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) on a motorcycle. The other is just to an overhead aerial shot of a car.
Both are cuts from an interior to an exterior. The first shot I mention above is in slow-motion. I think I like it because of the irony (if I remember correctly Stephen and his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) are talking about something that very much involves Martin, so the cut is timely), but also because it felt like such a candy-coated teenage romance moment. The way she hugs him. That slo-mo. The popping colors of the moment. The low angle. The wind in their hair. It was so disarming amidst a really alarming moment.
The other cut hit me because of sound. Is there any sound at this second shot? It felt like the air got sucked out of the theater. The film is fairly loud, at least the score is, so the absence (or near absence of sound landed).
I’m envious of Lanthimos’ ability to easily use really high and low angles. I feel like this is a filmmaking style that is going away. But Lanthimos is often framing at extremes and it really works. There’s an early conversation between Martin and Stephen that, I think, has three shots of coverage. A wide angle dolly that follows them. An MCU from behind, favoring Martin. And an extreme low angle from in front, favoring Stephen. That low angle should grab so much attention but it just fits naturally. It doesn’t feel like your noir-ish usage, and it doesn’t really seem to say much more than the conversation does (sure, Stephen seems to have more power here, and sure, Martin has something to hide, but later usage of these angles doesn’t track that way. I think.).
There are a lot of long L and J cuts with dialogue. Voiceover, basically. I wonder if that was written into the script. The film takes on this feeling that something is always happening somewhere else. That events are always starting to pile on top of one-another. I love that.
SPOILERS FROM HERE
Here’s the big thing about The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Why do we accept the big reveal midway, or a little earlier, through, when Martin explains to Stephen what’s happening as they sit in the hospital cafeteria? It shouldn’t work. The world hasn’t really lived up to his explanation at that point. The interesting thing to me is that Stephen doesn’t accept his explanation (Stephen’s reaction is logical), but we do. Why? Because we’re watching a movie? That feels like a dumb reason. I think if some other director made this exact same script we might not accept it.
It’s one thing to not believe a beat, or a performance, or a moment in a film, but this is the thing that the entire movie hinges on. It feels a bit out of the blue, pretty ridiculous, unbelievable, and undeserved, but we just go with it. There’s something in Lanthimos’ tense visual build-up (that wide angle lens) and the eerily hilarious way that Martin delivers the explanation that just makes sense. Sure, it’s also that what has happened to Stephen’s son, Bob (Sunny Suljic) is impossible, and that we haven’t established rules for the world yet, but most screenwriting instincts would, I think, at the very least point towards a restructure and try to force this moment 20 minutes earlier, which would kill the uneasy dynamic (raise your hand if you thought it was sexual) between Martin and Stephen to this moment. It’s a strong decision that is totally buoyed by the strangeness of the preceding audio-visual world.
If I have one complaint about Sacred Deer it’s the “metaphor” moment in Stephen’s basement. It’s right as Martin bites his own arm. It’s a painful, powerful sequence, but it’s too on-the-nose. It starts to feel really obvious that Martin is talking about the film and the aforementioned scene.
But whatever. The film is an awesome experience that sucks you in. Great, loud music; performances that are all unique, yet all cohesive (can’t forget Alicia Silverstone’s great turn); lots of tense hilarity (the scene where Stephen visits Bob and Kim’s principal…); and plenty of risk-taking (the scene where Kim sings Martin a song really shouldn’t work, but it does).