Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's weekly e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.
One popular storytelling recipe:
1) Start with one seemingly perfect, well-to-do family.
2) Add one shady interloper.
3) Stir slowly.
It's certainly a formula tried and true in genres ranging from comedy (What About Bob?) to thrillers (Cape Fear). I suspect that part of the trope's appeal stems from the jealousy that we tend to have of pristine families who appear to have it all. And so, we wonder: how much stress can we inject into these households before even fundamentally serene people start to crack?
Steven and Anna Murphy (Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman) live in a beautiful home in a gorgeous neighborhood. He's a heart surgeon of some renown, and together they're the parents of two cheerful kids, Kim and Bob. When Martin (Barry Keoghan), a socially awkward high-schooler, shows up during one of Steven's shifts, we're originally led to believe that he's simply an overzealous kid eager to ingratiate himself with a star physician. Soon afterwards, however, we discover that they share a dark history... one in which Martin holds Steven accountable for a personal tragedy. And in retribution, Martin calmly lays out the parameters for their new relationship with a chilling succinctness.
Unless Steven makes restitution for what Martin perceives as a gross injustice, Bad Things will start happening to Steven's family. And indeed they do. His children start to lose the use of their legs. Then their appetites. Much like what was said of Arnold's T-800 in The Terminator, Martin can't be reasoned with or bargained with, and he doesn't feel remorse for the children that soon suffer his wrath. He also doesn't want any money -- his required "restitution" is the sacrifice of a family member.
Let's stay with that T-800 robot analogy, because we're discussing a Yorgos Lanthimos film, and the Greek director has a certain trademark style. From his European breakout hit Dogtooth to his English-language debut The Lobster, most of the actors in his pictures speak almost exclusively in a wooden monotone, which often leaves characters vacillating between deadpan humor and grim pronouncements. While it works for yours truly (and I consider Dogtooth to be a tale of twisted genius), it's certainly not for everyone.
In addition to the distinct delivery of dialogue, Lanthimos' worlds tend to be off in some fashion, akin to what one might find in The Twilight Zone. The home of Dogtooth was one where a father concocts a frightening fantasy to keep his teenage children at home and ignorant of the outside world. In The Lobster, there was a social imperative for folks to get paired up romantically... or else.
Here, the enigma is Martin. How does he wield his powers? Nary an explanation is given, and while I tend to crave exposition, there's something deliciously chilling about the mystery of it all.
Clarence, what was your take on Lanthimos' style? (Have you seen The Lobster?) Did Keoghan's Martin elicit any vibes of Max Cady, the villain from the aforementioned Cape Fear? And what did you think of the dynamic between Steven's children? Once it was clear that one of them was going to have to die, they each uncomfortably turned on the charm to try and save their own skin...
I haven't seen any of his other films, and after watching this one, I'm not really in a rush to a Lanthimos film festival. It's not that I think he's a bad director. Quite the opposite, actually. The camera angles, editing, and music cues set up an effectively eerie atmosphere, and the performances he elicits from his actors are uniformly very good (especially Barry Keoghan's). It's the story and the way he tells it that gives me pause.
I'll start with the latter. I felt that the stilted way the actors talked made the film easier to handle for the audience, and not in a good way. These aren't "real" people we're watching because nobody talks this way, so the impact of their situation is a little gentler to bear. It was easier for me to sit through this movie than films like Dogville or Dancer in the Dark, highly stylized films that explored the same dark territory of human nature but didn't use dialogue to keep the audience at arm's length.
And then there's the story itself, an intriguing concept that's cut a little short by Martin's unexplained powers. I don't know because I've never read any of his books, but does Stephen King get away with this kind of unexplained magical realism in his stories? In a way, the lack of backstory or logic seems like a bit of a narrative cop out to me.
I will say, though, those concerns are lessened the more I think of this film in the abstract. It's another example of the lifting of the veil on the Perfect Middle Class Life to reveal the angst and perversion underneath (a theme Nicole Kidman seems to have made her own cottage industry over the years), and so this movie could also be thought of in terms of retribution as cosmic balance. Years ago, Steven made a choice that, the film seems to confirm, cost a man his life. Now he must make another choice to "make it right." Interpreted in terms of capitalism or Christianity, the scales must be balanced, sins must be paid for. In that sense, how Martin acquired his powers is less relevant than the sense of inevitability.
That fatalism is what made the behavior of the family's children so sad to me. There's something especially bleak and morbid about watching kids beg their parents for their lives. The fact that Steven's final solution to the dilemma is in keeping with his standing as a man of science and rationality doesn't make it any better.
I didn't feel the connection between Martin and Max Cady as much as Norman Bates. What do you make of Martin's efforts to hook up Steven with his mom (played with effective weirdness by Alicia Silverstone)? Was it part of his overall scheme, or just another way to show how screwed up he is?
And what did you think of Colin Farrell? He seems to be a polarizing actor, but to me he's got real screen presence.
Glad you brought up Alicia Silverstone -- first of all, I don't think I'd seen her since the days of Clueless*? Silverstone oozes desperation here as Martin's widowed mom; I'd say that Martin's efforts are both an example of his warped worldview (in trying to get a married man to leave his wife) and also his scheme, since the attacks on Steven's family only begin after Steven spurns her advances.
[*A quick perusal of IMDB reveals that it's been slim pickings for her in terms of high-profile work since 1997's Batman and Robin.]
For a guy who has headlined a large number of major releases over the past dozen years, Colin Farrell has largely come across as a blank slate to me? I can't recall any display of standout acting chops, nor have I seen him as a detriment to any picture as well. In a way, that might also be analogous to the acting in Lanthimos' films in general? Which is to say that there is acting, but it's hard to differentiate one performance from another when everyone utters their lines with the same deadpan affectation. So what's left? The dialogue and the camerawork. I'd be curious to know whether this style is something Lanthimos set out to adopt from the very beginning of his career. It also lends the question of whether the quality of the cast is much less consequential to his films than others. (Of course, regardless of whether Ms. Kidman's talents are necessary, it can't be denied that her star power helps sell tickets.)
I read a fair amount of Stephen King tales in my younger days, and there are definitely a lot of examples of "unexplained magical realism" in his fiction, the sort that you see manifested in Martin's strange powers. (Coincidentally, King's 1984 novel Thinner also involves a curse where a man starts losing weight uncontrollably.) You raise an interesting question, though, as to the amount of believable exposition we as an audience require in our fiction. Not to digress, but I saw A Quiet Place this weekend, and while it was a very taut, engaging thriller, there were also lots of far-fetched assumptions that we had to accept in order to buy into the premise. In contrast, I don't ever remember being frustrated with The Twilight Zone, whether the tales involved sinister dolls who could speak (Talky Tina from "Living Doll") or little boys who could somehow wish anything into reality ("It's a Good Life").
I didn't have a problem with the introduction of Martin's abilities, partially because it was clear at the outset that this was a strange kid. But I certainly understand how others may feel differently. So I ask you, what's the threshold here with regards to storytelling? When is it OK in your eyes to drop a major reality twist into a story?
Also, you mentioned that the solution to Martin's ultimatum was in keeping with Steven's "standing as a man of science and rationality." I actually thought he abandoned rationality at the end by opting for a Russian Roulette-style answer! Did you ever see Sophie's Choice...?
I never did see Sophie's Choice, although the title is now well-established enough in modern culture I'm familiar with what it symbolizes - a person who has to decide which loved one gets to live and which one gets to die. To me, Steven's predicament in Sacred Deer reveals the tools of his trade. The process of random sampling in research is well-known to scientists, including doctors. The idea of letting fate decide, for example, which test subject gets the placebo and which gets the real drug is a time-honored way of removing bias from a procedure. In Steven's situation, I think it could be argued that it also absolves the tester from the responsibility of making a choice based on irrational or emotional factors.
It was interesting to watch Steven slowly fall apart as all the expensive machines and tests that make up his world could not give him the answers the way he (and society) expects medicine to provide. His lack of belief in forces outside his profession, or even in his own fallibility (“surgeons never kill patients," he asserts) turned out to be the main roadblock in his ability to deal with cause and cure. He never gave Martin more than a perfunctory apology after his father died under his care. If Steven had gotten in touch with his feelings and shown Martin genuine contrition for what he had done (spurning his mother and/or killing his father), would things have been different?
It also makes me wonder as to how would Lanthimos have allowed his characters to express that kind of emotion if it came to it? You make a good point about how the quality of the cast wouldn't seem to have an impact on Lanthimos' style. If he was working with, to toss out a random example, Quentin Tarantino's group of usual suspects, would they allow themselves to to work in such a controlled method, or would there be more "acting out" in various ways?
When it comes to plot twists in story telling, there's a handy guide I've followed for a while now. I forgot where I first heard or read it, but it makes sense to me:
A Bad Plot Twist: Something happens that is illogical and predictable (“I totally saw that coming and it makes no sense.”)
A Mediocre Plot Twist: Something happens that is either illogical and unpredictable, or logical and predictable
A Great Plot Twist: Something happens that is logical and unpredictable (“I did NOT see that coming, but it makes total sense.”)
This framework is very much dependent on the context of the story. So in The Twilight Zone, whose very premise involves weird things happening all the time, you can still have a great plot twist in the episode "Time Enough at Last," where Burgess Meredith is the sole survivor of a nuclear attack who finally gets the chance to do what he loves, until... [most people probably know what happens, but I won't just blurt it out!]
In this sense, I'd have to rate the plot arc of Sacred Deer as only average, but this young director is proving himself to be very good at creating atmosphere and mood. I said earlier that I'm in no rush to see Lanthimos' earlier work, but in time I may change my opinion? It may be bleak, but it's definitely interesting.
Did you see the movie? Want to add to the conversation? Leave a comment below!