This review originally ran as part of our coverage of Fantastic Fest. With the film opening in theaters today, we’re running it again.
As with his 2015 relationship absurdo-comedy, The Lobster, about a quaint island resort where awkward singles are hunted for sport, Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, stars Colin Farrell, and seems to take place entirely within an alternate universe where everyone is simultaneously extremely awkward and extremely forthright. A representative moment is when Farrell’s character introduces his daughter, saying, “This is my daughter, Kim. She’s 14. She’s just had her first menstruation last week.”
It’s a style of hyper-arch psuedo-realism reminiscent of a Don DeLillo novel, a European arthouse Napoleon Dynamite, or a comedic Robert Bresson. Characters don’t try to make the lines sound natural (partly because they aren’t), so much as nibble them tentatively, as if sampling exotic foods. As with The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is consistently hilarious on the strength of oddness and Colin Farrell alone for at least the first 40 minutes. Farrell is like a human German shepherd — stately, thoughtful, and doubly adorable when perplexed. The way I used to make strange noises just to see my dog cock his head to the side, I get the same enjoyment from Colin Farrell furrowing his brow at the latest development in a highly unusual narrative. Which of course makes perfectly suited to play a Lanthimos lead.
Deer isn’t high concept in quite the same way as The Lobster, which created a vivid comic universe with obvious parallels to the real world. It’s more like an internal debate about whether parents should like one child better than another stretched to epic, operatic proportions. With emphasis on both “operatic” and “stretched”.
Farrell’s Steven Murphy is a Cincinnati cardiologist with two children, a beautiful ophthalmologist wife (Nicole Kidman), and a peculiar fixation with wristwatches. He spends the first 10 minutes of the film debating leather bands vs. metal with his friend, Matthew (the always great character actor Bill Camp), like some kind of deleted American Psycho scene, before going home to play quirky sex games with his wife. “General anesthesia?” she asks, before pulling down her underpants and pretending to be comatose on the bed.
Steven — who’s Irish, like the actor who plays him — has developed an unorthodox friendship with a 16-year-old, Martin, played by Barry Keough (Dunkirk, ’71). Martin’s American, though Keough is Irish, and Keaough’s accent faintly bleeds through Martin’s facade on occasion, which actually works perfectly for the character, as if he’s spent so much time with Steven that the accent has rubbed off on him. Martin and Steven say awkward things to each other and hang out awkwardly with each other’s families. Steven’s daughter (Raffey Cassidy), who’s just menstruated, develops a crush on Martin. Steven’s son (Sunny Suljic), asks to see Martin’s armpit hair. “That’s not nearly as much as my dad,” he says. “He has three times as much hair as you, all over his chest and stomach.”
Unlike the other studiously quirky elements of the film (the watch bands, the sex games, the armpit hair), the Martin-Steven relationship, and how they know each other and what they want, will become central to the plot. As with The Lobster, I like Lanthimos’ quirk. He’s funny, and he can channel it into otherwordly settings, Charlie Kaufman-like. But also as with The Lobster, Lanthimos and his screenwriter, Efthymis Filippou, kind of write themselves into a corner even as they’re creating a fascinating universe. Lobster ran up against a brick wall and ended on a sort of narrative cop out. Deer doesn’t avoid making choices, per se, it just sort of stretches them out. It gives Steven a Big Choice, and rather then have him make it and move on, it milks it, for at least one beat too long.
Lanthimos/Filippou are next level at building worlds and creating provocative scenarios, but they have a tendency to just sort of chew on a topic until it comes apart like old gum. It’s almost like they love their scenarios so much that they just want to live there, without seeing where they might go. In Deer, Lanthimos seems to compensate for the story’s deteriorating satirical value with louder, more epic music. It’s telling that it’s only in the ending that he resorts to such tricks. Deer creaks toward an ending and goes out on a sour note, but as before, it’s a singular experience and enjoyable enough to allow you to forgive its faults.