Monday, January 22, 2018


Yorgos Lanthimos is out to mess you up. Even if you haven’t squirmed through the Grecian filmmaker’s international breakthrough Dogtooth – an intensely disturbing story of siblings unknowingly held captive by their own parents – or gritted your teeth through The Lobster – a cruel fantasy comedy that many seemed to like, but lost me as it ground a good fanciful premise into pessimistic repetition – you’d know right off that the writer-director of The Killing of a Sacred Deer wants to provoke intense reactions. The film sits on a black screen, soft and dramatic classical music playing underneath. Then: a smash cut to an extreme close-up of open heart surgery. I gasped. Then I squirmed as the shot holds. Then I looked away, repulsed but grinning. Oh, Lanthimos, at it again, up to his audience provoking jolts, his unflinching camera staring. After this startling opening statement, the build up to the next disturbing disruption is a long, soft timpani roll of suspense, the score doing its best to rumble under the imposing blocking and unflinching austere framing which turns every normal Cincinnati street and gleaming hospital corridor into a close cousin of Kubrick’s Overlook hotel. The film is a sustained creepy thriller with tension slowly simmering and clasping underneath every scene. Empty space and cavernous silence in the cold sets and pulsing grainy cinematography leaves room for disquieting suspicions as unfathomable escalating moral and karmic confusion ripples across an already-brittle family’s life.

Lanthimos directs his cast into performances of carefully modulated awkwardness and softly tripping monotones, their eerie implacability adding to a sense of wrongness that slowly builds. The film demonstrates its own twisted logic step by step as a surgeon (Colin Farrell), his wife (Nicole Kidman), and two kids (Sunny Suljic and Tomorrowland’s Raffey Cassidy) are slowly, subtly, and increasingly absurdly drawn into the plot of an unusual and insinuating interloper (Barry Keoghan, his quietly menacing face miles from the sweet innocence of his Dunkirk role). The young stranger is the son of a man who died on the operating table. The surgeon has tried to show him sympathy, striking up a vaguely paternal mentorship, maybe out of guilt. Big mistake. The boy wants to make the surgeon hurt. Suddenly, this creepy guy is the nexus of mysterious illness that spreads through the family. The kids are struck with paralysis that’s seemingly incurable, and completely inexplicable to a small army of medical experts. It only gets worse from there, including both inducement to murder and an awkward attempt by the boy to get his mom (Alicia Silverstone, never sadder) to watch Groundhog Day with his victim. With no shortage of disturbing emotions and plot developments roiling under every scene that follows, characters squirm intensely under pressure. Lanthimos keeps the proceedings darkly absurd, austerely terrifying, a deeply eccentric mix of the lurid and placid, the preposterous (a halting nervous laughs masking deep horror) and tense ethical quandaries stirring up grippingly sustained suspense. It’s all the more upsetting for being so inscrutable, for offering up no answers other than a desire to see brittle people break, even as they’re forced to confront their mortality, morality, and contradictions therein.

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