It’s December in America, which means Christmas and endings and bitterly cold weather. For cinephiles like me, December is cramped and frantic with big-deal movies the studios have been sandbagging and then spoon-feeding us for the award ceremonies. I complain every year, but this time around I’m especially bothered. Did you catch Monday morning’s uninspired Golden Globe Nominations? Leading the fray are Spielberg’s The Post and Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, films that won’t reach big cities until Christmas, and lord knows when they’ll trickle into Montana. I’m sure they’re great and all, but that’s not the point.
The point is, don’t worry for now about the movies you “need” to see this season. The chorus of talking heads doesn’t care about truly original works of cinema. For example, this week’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
The Greek writer and director Yorgos Lanthimos got everyone’s attention last year with his black comedy The Lobster, about a dystopian world where unwed people are sent off to a singles’ colony to find mates, or else they’re turned into animals. Like The Lobster, Sacred Deer is intrinsically odd. From its frequent use of fisheye lenses to the curious cadence in which the actors speak (never mind the things they talk about), you get the persistent impression that something’s off. As with The Lobster, you can expect a similarly loose tethering to the rules of reality, but beyond that, it’s important to go into this new movie with a clean palate.
You might laugh nervously in parts of Sacred Deer, but it’s decidedly not a comedy. Lanthimos favors sadism over mercy by delivering the most taut and squirmy psychological horror of 2017. (And don’t forget, this is the year we got Darren Aronofsky’s controversial masterpiece Mother!)
Colin Farrell stars as a successful surgeon named Stephen in a hospital on a very high floor with pane glass windows looking out onto a skyline I don’t recognize (the film was shot in Cincinnati, but it’s hard to picture these characters in Ohio, or really anywhere on this planet). We see Stephen rendezvous with a teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan) at a perfectly ordinary diner that still manages to drip with Lynchian weirdness. Afterward, Stephen presents Martin with an expensive watch followed by a nervous hug. What the hell is going on between these two? Is this an affair, blackmail or worse?
At home, we meet Stephen’s picture-perfect family, headed by Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their children Kim and Bob (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic). Anna is also a doctor, but more than that, she maintains a beautiful figure, takes excellent care of the children and runs the household with shrewd efficiency. Women like this rarely go unpunished, and this is a horror film with a first act featuring a nice nuclear family, so I don’t know, you tell me, do you think the kids and their mother are going to be OK?
Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou have adapted the story from the ancient Greek play Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripides. That might be a spoiler to audiences more literate than myself; I know that I couldn’t see what was coming. I weep for this film, which is so strange, scary and perfect, yet audiences thus far have seemed disappointingly underwhelmed by its secrets. Best of all is Keoghan’s unsung performance as Martin. (Just watch how he eats spaghetti!) Dripping with sincerity and brilliance, Keoghan’s work is forced to exist in the same universe that gave the specifically untalented Ansel Elgort a Golden Globe nomination for Baby Driver. I can’t even.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer opens at the Roxy Fri., Dec. 15.