Colin Farrell gives a career-best performance in Yorgos Lanthimos’ nightmarish Palme d’Or contender.
A bloody, beating heart thumps – one wrapped in surgical cloth; peppered with invasive hands. That’s how we’re introduced to Greek provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos’ dizzying return to Cannes – The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Almost uncategorisable, and entirely unhinged, it is a luridly dark family drama-cum-psychological horror; one which peels away at the cosy façade of picket-fence suburbia. In a similar vein to his 2015 festival breakout, The Lobster, his latest is as comical and absurdist as it is beguiling and distressing – a morbid chuckle for every scalpel plunge.
Reuniting with Colin Farrell, who leads as enigmatic surgeon, Steven, we are introduced to a peculiar relationship he shares early on. It’s one with a teenage boy, neither his son nor step relation, rather a former patient. He meets with Martin (Barry Keoghan) on semi-regular occasions; usually for a slice of apple pie at a diner before a scenic stroll along the river. What seems plutonic and nurturing soon becomes, well, anything but. For Martin has a very particular agenda: one most mysterious and inexplicable. Steven is happily married to wife, Anne (Nicole Kidman), and the pair have two imperfectly perfect children; daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and son Bob (Sunny Suljic). His beloved soon fall victim to Martin’s satanic rituals, which brings a plague of ills and traumas, only to be terminated by a devastating burden upon the esteemed patriarch’s shoulders.
Craft is king here, with Lanthimos’ frame brilliantly textured with complex angles and images. There is a meticulousness to his world-building, and an audacity to his approach. Nothing is what it seems, and never are we given an opportunity for presumption. Finished by Thimios Bakatuakis’ ferociously sparse cinematography – alcohol-cleansed and dispassionate – The Killing of a Sacred Deer is without doubt one of the festival’s most accomplished works of visual filmmaking. His co-written script with frequent collaborate Efthymis Filippou is pretty effective, too. Dialogue is deliberately static, with characters nervously pausing between lines, as if they are trapped in a vice, gasping for air. On occasion this brings on potentially unintentional comedy, but there is a clear running strand of glassy derision here.
Situated somewhere between Stanley Kubrick and Jonathan Glazer, trying to ride every tonal beat on offer is a challenge. Lanthimos straddles a rich and absorbing palette of hues and colours; lashings of alarming body horror, including bleeding from the eyes, are enough to turn the stomach, but you’ll find a pit in the belly when young Kim brazenly announces the initiation of her menstrual cycle. To balance high-wire material like this takes a talented bunch, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer certainly benefits from such. Colin Farrell is perfect as the shaggy-beared protagonist, proving his creative relationship with the director is a positive one. His performance here feels deeper and braver than that of The Lobster, and that movie asked a lot of him, too. He observes and manoeuvres through the forensically-lit spaces with a physical heaviness; one which intensifies as more excrement hits the rotating blades.
Kidman is also fantastic as his pointy spouse; steely and commanding, even in sequences of unaccommodating silence. Not that the film is ever quiet, mind; in fact, the insidiously atmospheric score bellows so loud occasionally dialect is unclear. The trio of youngsters all deliver fine work, with the problematic bound shared between Cassidy’s Kim to Keoghan’s demented elder Martin the undoubted highlight. A number of their scenes together are enough to place face-in-palm, namely a cringe-inducing rendition of Ellie Goulding’s “Burn”, which seems to go on for an eternity.
There’s little doubt than plentiful audiences will struggle here. The audible wave of boos which filled the Grand Théâtre Lumière are evidential, but diverse filmmaking is the most interesting and essential: two terms which perfectly surmise Lanthimos’ Palme d’Or contender.