Cannes 2017 Review: “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”

Cannes 2017 Review: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Cannes Film Festival competition has always featured an array of dark social-realism and miserablist films, but this fair runs even deeper this year. Without the competition even being over, the Croisette has already shown the likes of Zvyagnitsev’s Loveless, Haneke’s Happy End, Loznitsa’s A Gentle Creature and Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Naturally, Lanthimos’ film isn’t an exercise of pragmatism, but it is more dreary and clinical than his typically distant, deadpan movies. Although the movie has Lanthimos’ trademarks, the homage it pays to the likes of Haneke and Kubrick comes off as cheap imitations of people more versed in their craft.

The set-up is interesting enough. An unnamed surgeon (Colin Farrell) befriends Martin (Barry Keoghan), a strange young man who was the son of a patient who died in heart surgery. Martin is welcomed by the surgeon’s wife, an optometrist (Nicole Kidman) and their two kids, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). Harboring resentment for the surgeon’s normal life and his negligence that led to his father’s death, Martin inexplicably sickens Bob, making him paralyzed waist down. Martin warns that the same fate will fall on the surgeon’s entire family if he doesn’t act soon.

Lanthimos’ staple comedy style is present, despite the story being a reworking of a tragic Greek myth. The awkwardness often doesn’t work here. Tonally, the film is too inconsistent to build up the drama and threat throughout. The film is incredibly obvious in its moral depiction and Lanthimos’ brand doesn’t create another layer. The humor really only adds to the depiction of puberty angst, which is unexciting and not well developed. This is especially true because the “teen psychopath taking revenge” story has already been done and done the same way.

The film is on the nose in all facets. There is nothing inspired about a clinically directed movie being set in a hospital. Furthermore, the aggressively overbearing score of dreary, atonal classical music seems at odds with a lot of what Lanthimos is doing. Whereas Greek mythology is often quite deep, symbolic and metaphoric, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is shallow and thematically frivolous. That’s not to say Lanthimos was reaching for some deeper meaning. He wasn’t and that’s not for better or worse. This is true of his last movie The Lobster, as well — they are films of simple pleasures, meant to be enjoyed. Here though, it is just hard to locate that joy.

That’s not to say that The Killing of a Sacred Deer isn’t without merit — it is well shot and put together. However, this doesn’t stand for much because it borrows so heavily from established and well-known directors. The presentation just aches of familiarity from the long shots and distancing composition. It is hard to expect a revelation with every new film, but the filmmaking and writing borrow from the same material, most notably Haneke’s Funny Games, and Kubrick’s more mysterious films. It is disappointing consider that Lanthimos has been hailed as an original voice that been necessary for developing Greek New Wave and world cinema.

The performances also add to the movie, especially the toast of Cannes Nicole Kidman’s. Her role as the optometrist wife of the surgeon is certainly the most serious performance of the film, almost oddly so. Kidman doesn’t get a chance to deliver the more absurd, stilted dialogue that made Farrell such a revelation in The Lobster (he largely does the same stuff here). However, when the film turns to its more dramatic roots her performance is anchored in strength that is based on logic rather than maternal energy. She’s as good as ever and, even in spite of the rest of the film’s quality, she proves that she is one of the most reliable and interesting actresses working today.

Other than Kidman, Keoghan’s performance is the next most noteworthy and completely the opposite. He nails the Lanthimos bizarreness and delivers the weird lines with such conviction it almost had me convinced the dialogue was decent. Almost.

All of the negatives would be forgivable if the film wasn’t a slog. Although occasional good at creating tension, it is mostly just a borrowing, inconsequential movie masquerading as a meditative art film without the meditation. Considering the set-up, The Killing of a Sacred Deer should at least make for some trashy fun or haunting drama, but it doesn’t amount to either. In fact, it doesn’t amount to much at all and the final scene really made me consider that this was all a joke for Lanthimos. The punchline diminishes everything before it and worse, it’s just not funny.

Written by
Tanner Stechnij is a journalism student at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School. He has been reviewing films for a couple of years and has found a niche in queer world cinema.

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