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TIFF 2017: ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ Stops Lanthimos in His Tracks

The Greek satirist stumbles in his second English-language feature.

How many films does it take before a director’s style calcifies into a shtick? Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has wrung a fine set of films out of a distinct approach, tackling contemporary concerns through a blackly comic filter and a grab-bag of consistent tics (static compositions of chaotic or violent events, detached line readings, characters who accept the horrific and the absurd with utter unflappability). His second English feature (and his second starring Colin Farrell) re-deploys those tics, but this time around, they aren’t wedded enough to a strong thematic core to register.

Where Dogtooth parodied social mores elevating the family to a kind of holy order, and The Lobster found fertile ground in the absurdities of dating and coupledom, Sacred Deer takes a different approach, acting as a sort of classical myth transposed to a modern, urban environment. (Dogtooth and Lobster mostly stuck to the wilderness or carefully cloistered interiors.) Farrell stars as a family man and surgeon who finds himself sharing a creepy, secret bond with a mysterious young man (Barry Keoghan); to divulge the nature of this bond would constitute a spoiler, but there’s a dire set of circumstances involved, and the impact is destined to be felt by his family, including his wife, played expertly (as always) by Nicole Kidman.

Kidman, Farrell, and Keoghan prove to be adept and often very funny when it comes to interpreting Lanthimos’ peculiar take on human interaction. By and large, conversations between people are strictly transactional or functional; Lanthimos’ characters don’t “feel” in the traditional sense, instead acting as reporters of human-esque stimuli. That extreme distancing makes for some satisfying moments of black comedy (particularly as the stakes are raised in the film’s final act), but, robbed of a structuring thematic core, Lanthimos’ tics are left exposed in an unflattering light, leaving his characters as pure abstractions and viewers left wondering why any of this is ultimately worth a second thought beyond a few black-hearted laughs.  

The 42nd annual Toronto International Film Festival is held from 7 to 17 September 2017.

Written By

Simon is a sometimes writer and podcaster living in Toronto.

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