Is Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film a comedy? The Lobster, the Greek director’s first English language production, was an aggressively absurdist Bunuelian comedy of manners exploring the rituals of romance. Yet despite this madcap style and the recognisable names he attracts, Lanthimos is often spoken about as a highly austere filmmaker. With the latest of his high concept arthouse films, the topic is the inappropriate relationship between a man and a teenage boy, and the effect this has on their families. This doesn’t sound like much of a comedy, but in fact, this is that rare film which places absurd entertainment side by side with wrenching discomfort.
In that vein, Lanthimos cites Kubrick. Characters remain centred as they stroll toward a camera that glides in retreat. It hovers slightly above, an out of body experience, a clinical, medical examination by Farrell of his patients and Lanthimos of the situation. I haven’t seen this many Kubrick apeing setups since A.I.
As ever, Lanthimos uses his mannerism to explore themes of morality, ritual, and myth. This is expressed through disabled children crawling around an enormous house, through Nicole Kidman playing dead while Farrell sniffs her, through Alicia Silverstone sucking his hands. It is uncomfortable, adding up to less than the sum of its (admittedly very well put together) parts.
Barry Keoghan, a young Irish actor fresh from a memorable turn in Dunkirk, here cements his place as a screen presence to watch. His jittery magnetism provides the perfect counterpoint to Farrell’s deadpan. In the first act, which depicts their queasy relationship, the pair’s disparate approaches to the antiseptic dialogue of Lanthimos is thrilling.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer does, however, miss the walloping punch finale of his best work. The bitter open endings of Dogtooth (what happened in the trunk?) and The Lobster (why is he taking so long to come back from the bathroom??) forced you to grapple with your own moral subjectivity. What Lanthimos builds towards with The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a true Sophie’s Choice and executed well. But after that decision is made the film deflates, seemingly unable to deliver a succinct message of purpose.
The films of Lanthimos ask the lengths people go to hold onto our bourgeois lifestyles. But previously, the high concept worked as a litmus test for one to project their own fears and expectations. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is so direct that while it is captivating in the moment, there is little left to consider after the fact.