Yorgos Lanthimos’s two most famous films so far, Dogtooth and The Lobster, were both set in richly imagined, highly conceptual environments. The former imagined a Room-type situation where a family’s children are tyrannically imprisoned in a house and know only that world; the second dreamt up a scenario where all men and women have to be in couples or they get turned into an animal. These settings seemed to account for his strange tone — the clipped sentences his characters use, their oddly detached air, and his clinical way of directing. But his new film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, appears to be set in an only partially modified world, and he has kept these quirks: this is now beginning to feel less like an artistic statement and more like a weakness in his work.
Colin Farrell plays a surgeon who is being emotionally blackmailed by the son of a patient he accidentally killed during an operation while drunk a few years before the action takes place. The young man (Barry Keoghan, terrifically threatening and quizzical) gradually infringes more and more on the doctor’s life, and ultimately puts some species of curse on the surgeon’s family, whereby they will all be paralysed and die if Farrell doesn’t kill one of them. As the film unfolds, the children lose the use of their legs and the doctor and his wife (Nicole Kidman) are faced with an ethical dilemma.
Or are they? Yorgos Lanthimos maintains a steely atmosphere throughout, and the film’s psychological tension scarcely lets up, but this is a bogus concept and it begins to wear extremely thin after an hour or so. The metaphorical high stakes strain, too, since the movie has no emotional counterpoint or psychological verisimilitude to speak of, being set in Lanthimos’s world where characters are unconnected and blank. This means that the film’s story becomes a zero sum game, reducing all tension to nil and obliterating all emotional stakes. It isn’t certain, either, that the movie has much to say about the human condition, or the bonds that tie us together, since its central action is purely concocted.
The film’s completely hollow proposition is then further undermined by a series of directorial tics that would be more acceptable if the movie had a heart or a soul. Lanthimos’s cool camera, following its characters at mid-distance in a series of stark tracking shots, and his big screeching, honking score, would articulate the characters’ plight or the dramatic tension if these were present at all. Worst of all, Lanthimos has cut back on his usually vibrant wit, which undercut the cruelty and violence of his previous work to great effect. This means that the film also drags, and lacks bite.
What jokes remain are good ones, and Colin Farrell, as in The Lobster, gives it his doleful deadpan best, which is very good indeed. A delicious, throwaway scene in which he tells his young son a secret in order to gain his trust, which soon turns into a nightmarish overshare about sexual abuse, gives a sense of the pleasure and wickedness that Lanthimos’s previous films offered. Nicole Kidman is good but underused as the doctor’s wife, and both are upstaged by Barry Keoghan’s fully committed turn: it’s only a pity that these performances are set within such a contemptuous, icy, ultimately vacuous movie.