The last film Yorgos Lanthimos directed and co-wrote with Efthymis Filippou was the oddly compelling and flawed The Lobster, which captivated a significant section of the film world and earned them an Oscar nod. Despite some early rumblings about Sacred Deer, it has nowhere near the sense of dark whimsy nor fascinating alchemy that The Lobster did. In fact, it is a bit of a boring mess that never pays off, though teases with many promises.
Much like The Lobster, the entire film is structured to get to the final moments, or final scene and coda in the case of Deer. It is a powerful couple of images, but they mean nothing because the previous two hours were spent laying out plots and ideas that went nowhere and had no support.
It probably didn’t help that Lanthimos prefers a presentational style of acting akin to pure Brecht; flat, stated rather than “acted,” allowing the ideas to be formed by the audience rather than manipulated or guided by the characters. It is a very intellectual approach to theatre and it is rarely as blank as Brecht probably wanted. However, if the ideas aren’t there to be formed, a lack of emotional connection simply distances and bores an audience.
[For a really good documentary and an interesting look at such a production done well, watch Theater of War that chronicles a production of Mother Courage starring Meryl Streep at the Papp.]
Given that Colin Farrell (Roman J. Israel, Esq) and Nicole Kidman (The Beguiled) lead this cast, a lack of connection is near criminal. Scraping against them and their family is the creepy Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk), who creates a twisted combo of Crispin Glover and Paul Dano to drive the story as best he can. Sunny Suljic and Raffey Cassidy (Tomorrowland), as the children of Kidman and Farrell, struggle in this film to make an impression. Cassidy gets more opportunity, but neither ever make sense of it all and so their performances simply fade away.
And that, in the end is the real problem. The Lobster certainly left audiences with questions and debates around its ending. But there was context for that debate; there had been a story, however weird, that latched into base, human needs and desires. You couldn’t not talk about that film for days afterwards. Sacred Deer reaches for something similar but misses the grab leaving the rest of the story just a series of forced vignettes and actions that have nothing driving them. It is a credit to Lanthimos that I kept thinking there was something coming, which is what kept me watching for two long hours. But, having never paid it off, I left the movie angry and frustrated rather than contemplative or in the mood to discuss it.
Even though I finished it, I can’t give it my normal 2 stars in rating for getting me to the end, because there was no end there. However, it is beautifully filmed and with competent actors that delivered a clear and consistent (if pointless) vision, so it isn’t a 1 star film either. Suffice to say: skip it. I’m sure Lanthimos and Filippou will deliver something down the road, but this movie is better shelved and ignored, except by film classes who wish to dissect it for craft.