While Yorgos Lanthimos’s second English language film can’t quite match The Lobster in several regards, it still paints Lanthimos as one of the most promising and distinctive auteurs working in film today.
After a snippet of Schubert’s Stabat Mater against a dark screen, The Killing of a Sacred Deer opens with a close-up of a human heart, exposed in the final stages of surgery. This first shot is incredibly indicative of the film that follows: precise and invasive, graphic yet sterile, unapologetically clinical, and arguably difficult to watch. The dialogue that ensues soon after between Farrell’s Steven Murphy, a cardiologist, and his anesthesiologist and friend, Matthew (Bill Camp), lets viewers familiar with Lanthimos’s work know that they are getting exactly what they signed up for, while certainly leaving those unfamiliar wondering why the hell everyone is talking like a socially awkward automaton (you do get used to it, believe it or not). Steven and Matthew talk about their watches, specifically their watch straps. Matthew prefers leather, while Steven strongly favors metal. As is typical of Lanthimos’s work, it seems equally possible that this discussion is a metaphor for something much deeper than watch straps, or that it truly is just a discussion about watch design. Story wise, Sacred Deer is in much more familiar territory than The Lobster–though no less unsettling for being somewhat less off-the-wall. There is admirable innovation in Sacred Deer, but it is a matter of approach more than content.
Sacred Deer is quick to reveal the strange friendship between Steven and sixteen-year-old Martin (Barry Keoghan), but takes quite longer to reveal its significant origins, which quickly begin to spell trouble for Steven and his seemingly perfect family, composed of his ophthalmologist wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and son Bob (Sunny Suljic). In most other hands, the raw materials of the story would very likely be shaped into either melodrama or bona fide horror. Lanthimos dabbles into the latter at times, making perhaps a little too good use of a screeching score that heightens an awareness of the physical pain depicted on screen through inspiring strong physical discomfort in the viewers themselves. He steers well clear of the former, though, usually letting moments of icy quietness reign supreme overheated emotional explosions. Perhaps even more so than The Lobster, Sacred Deer steers clear of making appeals to the viewer’s heart, though this film provided far more potential occasions to do so.
There is no doubt that many will dislike the film for its coldness, but it does serve a purpose. Leaving the most affecting emotions at the door enables Sacred Deer, like Lanthimos’s earlier films, with more room to engage with the viewer intellectually. However, this latest film does not have the obvious universality of The Lobster (after all, literally everybody can relate to the difficulties of being and/or not being in a relationship), which, in conjunction with its artfully maintained emotional distance, gives the film a decided sense of emptiness.
Overall, Sacred Deer does not match many of The Lobster‘s greatest strengths, but it perhaps, more importantly, does not share The Lobster’s greatest weakness: consistency. For many viewers, The Lobster was more like two films than one; a more or less universally acclaimed dark satire and then a slow drama that received a much more mixed reception. Love or hate it, Sacred Deer is very much a consistently paced, plotted, and styled film.
For this reason, while Sacred Deer is not Lanthimos’s strongest film to date, it displays an increased consistency and stylistic confidence that paints a promising picture of Lanthimos’s future. The Lobster was one of the unique releases of last year (or 2015, depending on where you live); Sacred Deer assures that Lanthimos is well on his way to becoming one of the most distinct and stylistically identifiable directors working today.