In the contemporary footsteps of Michael Haneke, Gaspar Noe, and Lars von Trier and the more distant lineage of Luis Bunuel and Pier Paolo Pasolini comes Greek Yorgos Lanthimos as the latest buzzed auteur provocateur. His latest is “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” a movie with one of the most interesting titles in recent years.
The film opens with an open chest cavity and a beating heart during open heart surgery. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a prosperous cardiovascular surgeon who has struck up a mysterious friendship with a 16-year old boy named Martin Lang (Barry Keoghan, looking kind of like an Irish Miles Teller). He introduces Martin to his family – his ophthalmologist wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), and his two children, 14-year old Kim (up-and-coming Raffey Cassidy) and 12-year old Bob (Sunny Suljic). Martin ingratiates himself with them all, especially Kim.
In return, Martin has Steve come over for dinner to meet his mother (Alicia Silverstone). They watch Martin’s favorite movie, Groundhog Day, but then Martin’s mother tries to seduce Steven, unsettling him. As the story progresses, we learn there is more than meets the eye as Steven lies to his anesthesiologist colleague Matthew (Bill Camp) about his relationship with Martin. Anna begins investigating that relationship while Martin becomes ever more the stalker.
Lanthimos’ influences are more clear in “Deer” than in any of his previous films, and the tone and direction of “Deer” feels like Luis Bunuel, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and Lars von Trier rolled into one. It’s got von Trier’s disturbing provocations and occasional over-the-top leaps. It’s Lynchian in dialogue with characters awkwardly giving more information than necessary in their conversations, often in odd extraneous tangents. At different points in the movie, characters discuss menstruation, arm pit hair, and masturbation. There is a subtle deliberate stiltedness in everyone’s delivery. Like Lynch, Lanthimos brings out the weird in the ordinary and makes the mundane menacing; one example line: “I won’t let you leave until you try my tart.” Stylistically, there is a lot of Kubrick in the zooms, tracking shots, and exploration of space with several visual quotes from “The Shining.” Finally, “Deer” digs the bourgeois bashing by Bunuel while invoking his use of supernatural metaphysics as employed in films like “The Exterminating Angel.”
While masterfully made, “Deer” has problems in its substance. Part horror film, part black comedy, “Deer” is a very cynical take on humanity. It references “Groundhog Day” and like that film it utilizes a cosmic quirk as a plot point. Unlike “Groundhog Day,” “Deer” is only populated by reductively self-centered characters in a world completely lacking in compassion. The primary themes are about selfishness and refusal to take responsibility and involves meting out barbaric eye-for-an-eye justice. Like in Haneke’s “Funny Games,” the more grotesque and provocative “Deer” becomes, the less interesting it becomes and the more it feels like a clinical exercise in artistic aggression, lacking a larger sense of purpose. However well crafted “Deer” is, it’s a small loathsome universe from Lanthimos.