The Killing of a Sacred Deer Review: Kubrick Emulated

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There are a lot more grey areas in the rules of allegorical cinema than that of more straightforward storytelling. A film of this nature can work even if you don’t understand every nook and cranny on first watch, so long as it leaves you thinking, fulfilled, and potentially rattled. That’s what separates a film like The Killing of a Sacred Deer from a film like mother! The latter is emotionally devastating, consisting powerful character shifts. But Yorgos Lanthimos’ follow up to The Lobster, another cautionary tale of emotional suppression, never quite establishes itself before the fireworks start to blow.

Like in The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer’s characters talk almost exclusively in monotonous small talk. Steven (Colin Farrell) is a surgeon who’s struck up an awkward mentorship of sorts with a clearly disturbed teenager, Martin (Barry Keoghan), who goes on to pose an unpredictable and unfixable threat to his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), and kids (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic). The film strikes an uneasy tone from the start with a loud, haunting score overpowering the eery silence, or even lack of stimulating human connection. Borrowing more than a little from Stanley Kubrick, the camera is almost robotic, or alien, with its presence. The smooth, clean movements are more than a little reminiscent of Kubrick’s most visually arresting shots, with the hallway sequences from The Shining most obviously coming to mind.

Successfully emulating one of cinema’s true masters will almost always gain a film a few points, but here it’s like Lanthimos is afraid of his own visual signature so he picked one he liked instead. While The Killing of the Sacred Deer is undoubtedly gorgeous, it never uses its visuals to seek out something original.

The performances fall much more in line with what you’d expect from the director of The Lobster, if that film was more deranged and bleaker than bleak. Farrell works as a man who’s facade is slowly crumbling, while Kidman continues the bravest year of her career thus far by once again showcasing her signature cold-to-the-touch demeanor with a layered, subtle emotionality that mines the depths of the human soul. She’s not as good here as in The Beguiled, but close enough that it’s more than impressive.

But even they can’t fully save a film that doesn’t quite find a way for its allegory to resonate on even a basic level. If the film’s emotional core more closely matched its bombastic sensory overload, that would be a film that at least entertains and sparks interest. But as it stands, The Killing of a Sacred Deer merely engages. It’s never boring, it just never makes the leap to challenging. Grade: B-

Matt Dougherty

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