If you've seen Lanthimos' The Lobster, you'll get a sense of what you're in for with The Killing of a Sacred Deer. They're both well-crafted art films, taking place in a reality that's close to ours and absurdities are never explained. The Lobster, for example, is about a world where society enforces individuals to be coupled in a relationship or be turned into an animal of their choosing. The why's and wherefore's are never fully explained, thankfully. Similarly, whatever is strange or supernaturally tinged is never fully expounded on in The Killing.
Colin Farrell is also in both movies, although here he is Steven, a successful surgeon, happily married to renowned opthamologist Anna (Nicole Kidman) and with two model children -- one loves singing in the choir and the other looks like a poster child for a shampoo commercial. The only thing that seems out of place is his initially inexplicable and burgeoning relationship with a young teenager named Martin (Barry Keoghan), which eventually threatens his life and forces him to make horrifying decisions.
Lanthimos' film is cold on many levels, aided by the frigid cinematography of oft-collaborator Thimios Bakatakis. The Killing is punctuated by creeping zooms and slow pulls -- so glacial that we're not sure what's happening, like a growing sense of paranoia we're not always certain is justified. Again, like Kubrick, Lanthimos makes use of director Gyorgy Ligeti to choreograph our nerves in rising timpanic drum rolls that force us inexorably toward doom. Characters give deadpan delivery of outlandish dialogue in monotone. Avowals of love or revenge are given matter-of-factly, without passion. Even Steven and Anna's lovemaking is somewhat calculated and cold -- this isn't necessarily a reflection of a lack in their relationship, but more a reflection of the society they're in.
There's no denying that this is beautifully crafted and directed. There's an attention to each scene and the composition of it, as if we're watching a play that has to make fastidious care of its space. Farrell, Kidman, and Keoghan are frighteningly good, and can we take a minute to say how wonderful it is to see Farrell and Kidman together again in exquisite form after the release of The Beguiled just earlier this year?
In the end, however, The Killing is a little too glacial for its own good. There's a detachment here as well as an immutable darkness. At least The Lobster was interspersed with moments of tenderness. It had black humor that was recognized as such and its fears were a commentary on contemporary anxieties; its darkness had some sort of purpose. The Killing is unceasing in its bleakness; its humor is difficult to connect to and it feels more like an exercise on a moral hypothetical than an art piece that edifies. Despite that, Lanthimos' style is breathtakingly bracing, able to make us uncomfortable without indulging in the pain of its characters. It's akin to a greek tragedy, one where all the characters usher toward a doom that is as inevitable as it is necessary that they are responsible for whatever act finishes them. And as a sort of Cassandra, where we know bad things portend, nothing we do or say can be believed by the characters on screen. The events that transpire, however, stay with us long after the film's credits roll.