Thursday, 9 November 2017

Film Review: The Killing of a Sacred Deer will shatter your nerves and crush your soul until it bleeds

Nightmares are inherently personal entities. They're the subconscious manifestation of our biggest worries and our deepest fears, quite literally the things that keep us up at night. Few films successfully evoke the feeling of being trapped in a bad dream, but when they do they tend to be painted with broad strokes around things that scare us all: misery, pain, death. The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Yorgos Lanthimos' latest deranged work of art, is so unhinged from reality and so devoid of any semblance of the humane that it skips right past the personal and lands on the foreign. You can't relate to this at all, you can barely even understand it - it feels like being trapped inside someone else's nightmare.

And yet, Lanthimos takes a clinical approach to the film. He opens with an extreme close up of a beating heart mid-surgery, and in most films this would be the most startling image - in a Lanthimos film, it barely cracks the top ten. We meet Steven (Colin Farrell), a surgeon with his perfect wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their two perfect kids Kim and Bob (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic). Steven's whole life seems perfect, again almost clinically so, apart from his frequent meetings with the teen aged Martin (Barry Keoghan). We don't understand their connection, but we know there's something sinister behind it - the screeching strings played at the beginning of their scenes tell us enough. Steven decides to bring Martin to his family and join his two worlds together, but slowly begins a descent into an unimaginably impossible situation.

Lanthimos knows his story is dark, he knows the sheer ugliness of this narrative, and so he paradoxically paints his canvas with gleaming, pristine whites and mesmerising reflective cinematography - the film is visually stunning in every sense of the word. His actors (particularly Kidman, in what could be a career best performance) perfectly capture the feel of Lanthimos' deranged world, they deliver their lines with an almost professionalised mundanity, every word lands like it's being performed at a spoken word concert. Keoghan is especially tasked with a difficult kind of acting here, his blank facial expressions and childishly sinister manner of speaking are pure nightmare fuel. Despite the recognisable cityscape and modern vehicles frequently on display, this film doesn't seem to take place in the world we know.

It makes perfect sense, in that it barely makes any sense at all. The film's plot (which I will actively avoid discussing in any further detail, the less you know the better) is rooted deep in the psychological horror genre but its refusal to answer any of its questions almost borders on fantasy. The film's central thematic ideas are given more clarity - as well as other things, Lanthimos is looking at suffering and justice and how the two can equate to each other - but the plot remains incessantly enigmatic. Lanthimos gives us the why's but abstains from treating us to the how's: we know why Steven deserves this horrendous ordeal, but we haven't the faintest clue how it can be happening.

While the film might begin slowly and take its time to fully reveal the true evil it wants to subject us to, Lanthimos works on atmosphere. As a screenwriter he may have peaked with last year's The Lobster, which saw him land his second Oscar nomination, but as a commander of tone it's tough to imagine Lanthimos ever exceeding his work here. His jarring soundtrack clashes with his clean cinematography, his sudden outbursts of violence add levels of grim realism to a story drifting further into the abstract. He paces his film with a meticulous slow build, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is content to wallow around in emptiness for its opening hour, confident that its second half will fulfil every promise you're made.

And fulfil them it does. Lanthimos' film erupts in its finale, it finds the point of no return and spits in disgust as it soars past it. There's depth to be found to The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and anyone wanting to dive further into its absurdist metaphors needn't worry about a lack of content, but this is a film impressive enough on surface level to carry it into greatness: context exists in hindsight, but it's barely a necessity. This is a numbingly intense, jaw droppingly daring piece of cinema - while the mere idea of rewatches feels like willingly submitting to sleep paralysis, they're almost vital in fully taking in everything Lanthimos has perfected here. The Killing of a Sacred Deer certainly isn't for everyone, but for those who like something twisted to come with their big screen ventures, Lanthimos has more than got you covered. Sickeningly, unapologetically brilliant. 

In A Sentence

Absurdism at its most absurd but nothing short of masterful, Yorgos Lanthimos' The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a nightmarish, unforgettable descent to hell that feels like nothing else you've ever experienced.

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