The latest pretentious film, like the pretentious Jackie, to merge droning noise with long-winded horror is The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk) co-stars as a severely disturbed boy who seeks to strike a certain bargain with a surgeon (Colin Farrell, Total Recall, Alexander). The director, Yorgos Lanthimos, an Athenian Greek who also directed The Lobster, co-wrote the film.
So there’s a distinctive look, sound and sense to The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It opens with a black screen, booming classical score and a shocking opening closeup of a human organ that’s throbbing and pulsating and to say more would be to spoil the movie’s intended impact. Lanthimos really convinces himself he’s got something to say and show and, in a way, he does. There’s social commentary embedded here and the stark, plain movie is rich with symbolism, such as the blood, scrubs and garbage that opens the story up and provides an introduction to the doctor, his god complex and what the filmmakers take as the mythical power of life and death. But it all could have been more economical and involving than he makes it.
Lanthimos, with Nicole Kidman (The Human Stain, Dogville, not to be confused with the director’s own Dogtooth) as the doctor’s wife, who happens to be a doctor, too, piles on lines, scenes and shots to add to whatever killing might take place. But the cumbersome plot detracts from the main puzzle and makes plain how boring, generic and lifeless the movie’s intended to be. For all the chit chat about leather straps, man-boy secrets, menstruation, sexual fantasy and handjobs for dad, the two plus two plot plays out predictably, if pretentiously. Some cultural points are mildly involving, but they dangle and never get developed.
Keoghan steals the scenes, with his earnest and needy face and presence, buddying up with the doctor who lies to his colleagues and family about his relationship with the boy. There’s no real reason for the doc to do this at all, let alone to publicly threaten to rape the boy and his mother (Alicia Silverstone), even on this movie’s own terms and I wasn’t the only one in the audience laughing in spots at what comes off as black — extremely black — humor, though none of us were laughing at the same time. Characters are strangely, coolly self-aware, yet oddly and inexplicably clueless about what’s going on. The doctor-doctor couple and their two kids speak in a staccato, Stepford Wives monotone that suggests they’ve been drugged, lobotomized or retarded in their growth. This may be the movie’s point but it all comes out gray so I didn’t care what happened to anyone.
I ended up just watching to see the thing through, with its weirdly blue streak and fetish for long, empty hallways. Even the hospital where the doctor conducts surgery is strangely empty of any patients, causing me to ponder whether this was a 21st century Coma-like subversion on the ObamaCare. Alas, a sense of dread and helplessness seems to be the only point to this two-hour exercise in dull, doll-like creatures smoking cigarettes like young Europeans and speaking lines to each other in Valium-voiced short sentences.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is like a crisply delivered poem on open mic night at a swanky cabaret: you anticipate that it’s about something and, in fact, it is, but it’s done with such fuss and precision that the show both overplays the performance and masks the nothingness of what it means.