Lanthimos at a certain stage realises that the film’s lobotomised dialogue and line delivery (“You’ve not touched your fries” “No” “May I ask why?” “Because I like the fries the most. I’m leaving them until last” “Oh right. I often do that as well”) familiar to those who saw The Lobster will only get him so far, so looks back to Dogtooth for advice in familial cruelty to at least run the audience through the perfunctory squirms and nervous laughs which that entails. We might commend the director for opening up and thus complicating The Killing of a Sacred Deer‘s narrative to the extent that on paper it could seem like a conventional thriller. In Dogtooth knowledge is factional (parent/child), but in The Killing of a Sacred Deer each individual knows something unique, lacks clarity on something specific, and has their own desired outcome in the film’s stakes. There is consequently a maturity to the way that information reaches the viewer- Lanthimos carefully controls when we can learn something, when we’ll stay in the dark, how to lead us to an idea, and when to deceive us.
The trick then is once again farce played straight; to invest only in surfaces. We might care for Martin’s mission as a dispossessed individual suffering at the ‘beautiful’ but shaky hands of the elite, and we might note the gendered rivalry between husband and wife’s respective professional fields, but the director is adamant we take all of this at face-value instead. We understand that it is about facades, and that normalcy is uncanny, and that we are meant to be provoked, but I don’t understand how we are meant to be offended by such a self-important shrug. Pauline Kael once remarked that the sex and violence in Kubrick’s films feels like a physics professor trying to make dick jokes. Lanthimos has taken this not as criticism but encouragement and so a better analogy for him might be an accountant making dead baby jokes. With his breakout film Dogtooth the director used this Euro Arthouse formalism as a hell that his characters desire to escape, and cinema itself became the tool to break away. The most interesting thing about The Killing of a Sacred Deer is that it has become the director’s desire to use cinema to smother the viewer in precisely this stuffy film language.
I am not above Lanthimos’ brand of detached cruelty, but I take issue with it being presented in such a bored and irritatingly smug way. The cameras draw attention to their always attractive formalist compositions and movements, and the atonal and dissociative cleverness of the sounds can’t help but let themselves be known as well. The heart surgery that opens the film is the director meeting his detractors who describe his cinema as clinical. Of course its imagery is not horrific but literally surgical. This is not criticism- this is everything Lanthimos wants the film to be. The charm is in the precision, I suppose- nothing can be said about this that Lanthimos did not have at the front of his mind at all times during its construction, and which cannot be deduced from just once yawning through it.