Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Killing of a Sacred Deer / **** (2017)

Now comes a rare moment of creative ascension. After the ambitious tests of “Dogtooth” and “The Lobster,” young Yorgos Lanthimos has distanced himself from the mere notion of promising filmmakers and made “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” a movie so strikingly perceptive that it moves him into the company of greater, more assured voices in the medium. And that is a rare feat to reach in this time of artistic saturation, much less limited thematic accessibility. This is a man who, like P.T. Anderson and the Coens before him, hit the ground in a frenetic sprint from the first moment his hands found a movie camera, and at a mere four films has created an anxious anticipation in audiences that have come to see his stories as the groundwork for a deeply resonant critique of the human condition. Would it surprise any of his admirers, then, to discover yet another one of his pictures has used a splendid screenplay to mask a statement about the nature of our flawed operation? Or that his characters move less like human beings and more as tottering platitudes with rather mechanical perceptions? Lanthimos conducts these elements with the precision of a maddened provocateur and finds a great underlying horror, just as the opposing forces of creation and destruction seem to clash in what can be described as a moral minefield.

This time, his inspiration comes from the torturous intents of Greek tragedy – namely from a play by Euripedes called “Iphigenia in Aulis,” about a lord who sacrifices his daughter to appease a vengeful deity. Though the ancient customs of the Greek playwrights have long been out of fashion in these literal times, they remain a dependable vessel for the antics of audacious directors obsessed with concentrated moods. The story concerns Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a very successful cardiologist whose life consists of textbook values: an established career, a beautiful wife (Nicole Kidman), two relatively well-behaved children, a lavish home and an anchored moral focus. But his interactions – and therefore those of anyone important in his circle – are an odd union of piercing specifics and random idiosyncrasies. They are staged as if mastered by the socially inept. The film establishes this prospect not just in general dialogue but in behaviors that defy a traditional observation, including an early one in which Anna, Steven’s wife, indulges him in a sexual fantasy where he seduces her while she pretends to be unconscious.

Then he comes into the company of a strange boy named Martin (Berry Keoghan), whose mannerisms are like a literal visualization of the uneasy tone permeating throughout the picture. Yet his arrival is anything but a serendipitous occasion; he is more like a force of nature destined to alter the course of the lives around him, however drastic or slight. Steven’s draw to him may not entirely be voluntary, but unspoken truths balance a series of encounters that seem obligated by discomfort. They share lunches, gifts, and eventually encounter one another in each other’s homes. That leads to further uneasiness, particularly when Steven offers to have dinner with Martin and his widowed mother (Alicia Silverstone), who is so alien that she uses a private moment to exploit her grief for a sexual response – and instead is left abandoned by a man who now realizes his association has gone too far. But what made her and her son this way? The narrative is that Martin’s father died tragically in a car accident, although a different version of the events may, in fact, explain the doctor’s strange loyalty, not to mention the boy’s relentlessness in assuming a place in his life.

If Lanthimos takes almost perverse pleasure in restraining the certainty of his plot, it’s with good reason – he is working with a screenplay that builds a gradual ambiguity by creating far more conflicts than conclusions, until there is a moment when everything must lead to an explanation that runs deeper than a mere stroke of surface logic. As we are ensnared by the strange relationship of the doctor and the boy, other events transpire that only embellish the mystery. Consider, for instance, a crucial development that occurs after Steven places distance between himself and Martin; his son awakens one morning to discover he can no longer walk, with no scientific explanation whatsoever. As our intuition begins to sense a malevolence in Martin, the sickness evolves and then spreads, and the guarded hysteria of the parents is amplified by their inability to affect the outcome. The key reveal lacks a certainty, but of course it does: no one is operating in a literal reality, much less with the restraints of conventional rules. But the goal is not to infuriate or to ensnare the audience for a perverse exercise, either. Read between the lines of everything that is happening – be it an action or the way a character looks or interacts with another – and you slowly begin to sense your mind sinking gradually into the subterranean reaches of this plot, where the motives bypass a simple explanation and trigger a deeply cerebral workout.

Young Berry Keoghan finds all the right menacing notes to propel the tension. It’s especially fascinating to see how Lanthimos uses him in the more difficult passages, such as a last-act twist that has him becoming an abductee in Steven’s search for some semblance of vengeance; as he is tied up in the basement and beaten until unrecognizable, Martin remains shockingly collected through the entire delivery, as if bloody noses and busted lips offer no links to pain. If Lanthimos places so much emphasis on him during this act of abuse, it’s not just to service the needs of the moment; Keoghan has an icy presence that is unmistakably deadpan. He seeks no sympathy, no concern. But are we to empathize with the situation Murphy has been cursed to here? Is it the law of nature for him to sacrifice in the place of a great misdeed? And if he must, how can he – much less his wife – make any sort of justifiable decision? The movie handles the final scene with such dramatic despair that we are uncertain how to respond – precisely as its director intends, especially if he expects his audience to contemplate the ramifications beyond the projector lights.

That is the generally unwritten value of his films: they are ambitious think pieces dressed up as colossal train wrecks, allowing his characters and narratives to function beyond the cultural norms and in the service of a concealed obsession. The lower tier observers emerge and see only odd measures, without recognizing the stakes involved. Others process them in a maddening dash for understanding… and instead discover a motive that seems to transcend common descriptors. His movie may be seen as a metaphor about good versus evil or even playing god versus playing death, but that glosses over the deeper motives: the dangers of mortal control, the act of admitting sin, the volatile rhythm of retribution and even the folly of feigning loyalties. A humor amongst this absurdity is only possible if we have the good sense to use chuckles as an emotional appeasement. “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” follows this new strange tradition right down to the inconsolable temperament of the story, but even after its frames have ceased and we have escaped its clutches, Lanthimos’ austere nature throbs internally, like a radical current destined to transform our outlook.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama/Mystery/Horror (US/UK/Ireland); 2017; Rated R; Running Time: 121 Minutes

Colin Farrell: Steven Murphy
Nicole Kidman: Anna Murphy
Berry Keoghan: Martin
Raffey Cassidy: Kim Murphy
Sunny Suljic: Bob Murphy
Alicia Silverstone: Martin’s Mother

Produced by
Daniel Battsek, Will Greenfield, Ed Guiney, Nicki Hattingh, Paula Heffernan, David Kosse, Yorgos Lanthimos, Sam Lavender, Andrew Lowe, Amit Pandya, Anne Sheehan, Gabrielle Stewart, Kamen Velkovsky, Peter Watson and Atilla Salih YucerDirected and written by Yorgos Lanthimos

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