Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Heart is Where the Home Is

Thoughts on a film: The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

With its extensive use of wide-angle lenses to distort perspective, prolonged tracking shots that unfurl through a maze of labyrinthine corridors and slow, penetrating zooms that seem to expose the hidden emotions of its characters, The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) is nothing if not a masterpiece of cinematic form.

In terms of its actual creative lineage, it was difficult not to be reminded of the films of Stanley Kubrick, both in its thematic design and its actual on-screen direction. More specifically, it brought to mind the presentation of Kubrick's similarly languorous and claustrophobic horror film The Shining (1980), where the discordant soundtrack, sense of isolation (both spatial and psychological) and the depiction of a family being pushed to the brink by external, possibly even supernatural forces, calls to mind the same events seen here.

However it also seems reminiscent of the detached and paranoid psychodrama at play within another of Kubrick's films: the often underrated Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Here, a successful doctor/surgeon is thrown into an emotional tailspin when his comfortable image of the world (and his own place within it) is challenged by an accusation that hits a little too close to home.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer [Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017]:

In keeping with the influence of Kubrick, Nicole Kidman once again appears as the wife of a successful doctor/surgeon whose all-knowing perspective on the narrative (and its secrets) creates a question of complicity. The role itself, and much of the resulting scenes, seem to offer a conscious throwback to Kidman's earlier role in Eyes Wide Shut.

Eyes Wide Shut [Stanley Kubrick, 1999]:

In Eyes Wide Shut, Kidman plays Alice; wife of the successful doctor Bill Hartford. It's Alice's initial confession about an erotic fantasy and possible extramarital affair that sends Hartford on his nocturnal odyssey; creating a question as to whether or not Alice is simply a victim of her husband's circumstances or a part of the greater conspiracy acting against him.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer [Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017]:

The frequent tracking shots through the labyrinth-like hospital feel specific to the point of establishing the location as an almost sentient space. Suggesting something of "the corridors of the mind" even; where the presentation seems to recall the vast passageways of the Overlook Hotel, or the hedge-maze and its wider (and applicable) connotations to Greek myth.

The Shining [Stanley Kubrick, 1980]:

Despite the Kubrickian similarities - as well as references and allusions to other works, which will be discussed shortly - The Killing of a Sacred Deer never feels like a copy or a work of imitation, but instead seems to have its own sense of morality and creative identity. It's an assemblage of influences, for certain, as almost all films today seem to be, but one that nonetheless reflects the general attitudes and worldview found in other films by Lanthimos and his co-writer Efthymis Filippou, such as Dogtooth (2009), Alps (2011) and The Lobster (2015).

Dogtooth [Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009]:

Like Dogtooth, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is preoccupied with exploring the roles and routines that come to define the conventional family unit. These routines depict a particular kind of American domesticity that is familiar from Hollywood movies and daytime television, but the scenes that feel most familiar, or recognisable, are robbed of personality, warmth and even basic humanity.

Again, as with Dogtooth - which presented an even more radical deconstruction of the suburban family - Lanthimos and his collaborators exaggerate these domestic routines until they become like little rituals of dehumanisation. Conversations about body hair and mp3 players or scenes of characters flossing their teeth are presented as a reality, but are depicted in such a way that it's as if we're witnessing aliens from a distant planet attempting to grapple with or engage with some rudimentary semblance of human behaviour.

Every scene in the film feels heightened, posed or artificial in construction. There's an almost 'autistic' quality to it, in the sense that so much of The Killing of a Sacred Deer is presented as if reflecting the worldview of characters unsure of how people are expected to respond or react to a situation; or where the intermittent bursts of discordant sound create a feeling of sensory overload; or where the mannered performance style and the bluntness of the dialog don't quite resonate with what feels 'recognisable' to us (whatever that might mean) and yet make sense within the context of everything else.

This aesthetic is symptomatic of the director's need to find new ways of expression; presenting familiar ideas, scenes and characters in a way that is aggressively unfamiliar. It's reflected in the imagery as well, as Lanthimos and cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis shoot from angles that are slightly left of the conventional; or use the wide-angle lens to dwarf the perspective of the characters, making them appear smaller, and the world around them, by contrast, appear greater, more overwhelming.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer [Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017]:

As an aesthetic approach it arrives fully formed with the film's astounding first image; a bird's eye view of a human heart beating inside the exposed chest cavity of one of the surgeon's patients. The shot immediately establishes context - who the character is, what he does for a living, etc - but also reinforces many of the thematic points of reference and interpretations that will develop as the film plays out. The idea of the heart as a symbol - with its conventional connotations of love, family, emotion (the expression, "home is where the heart is", etc) - but also the idea of the heart as a system. A functional organ that beats at the centre of things; like the character Martin; the teenage harbinger who enters into this family and disrupts it from within.

On the surface of it, The Killing of a Sacred Deer seems to blur elements of classical Greek tragedy - specifically the story of Iphigenia, with its themes of revenge, atonement and child sacrifice, as well as the implications of the title itself; which relates to Agamemnon's accidental killing of a deer in the grove of Artemis, who subsequently demands the death of Agamemnon's daughter, Iphigenia, as a penance - alongside further allusions to the film Teorema (1968) by Pier Paolo Pasolini.

In Pasolini's film, a beguiling young stranger enters into the life of a bourgeoisie family and attempts to destroy them from within; an element of the plot that is closely echoed here with Martin's initial acceptance within the family. There's also a suggestion of the children of the protagonist conspiring with the stranger to punish the father for some real or imaginary transgression; which seems to reflect not only the predicament faced by Colin Farrell's character in the film in question but also that of the Daniel Auteuil protagonist in Michael Haneke's similarly cold and clinical psychological study/revenge parable Caché (2005).

Teorema [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968]:

The Killing of a Sacred Deer [Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017]:

Caché (aka Hidden) [Michael Haneke, 2005]:

The final act builds to a kind of theatre of cruelty that feels close to another of Haneke's films; the home invasion thriller/didactic cine-essay Funny Games (1997). Here the contrasting elements of Greek myth, psycho-thriller and suburban satire collide in a moment that surely ranks as one of 2017's most jaw-dropping cinematic moments. As a climax to an otherwise slow and hypnotic study in sustained tension and emotional distance, the violent inevitability of this climax, and the way that the characters embrace it so unquestioningly, is absurd and outlandish; illustrating just how far the filmmakers are willing to go in order to honour the bizarre rules and rituals that they've created for themselves through this concoction of influences.

However, the climax is not gratuitous in nature. It doesn't stray into the realms of exploitation or sensationalism, as many of Haneke's (or even Kubrick's) imitators so often do when attempting to provoke or outrage their audience's sensibilities, but instead presents a final reckoning that is unflinching in its commitment and intensity.

While The Killing of a Sacred Deer struck me as an excellent film, much of it only works if we approach it on a level of allegory. Like Darren Aronofsky's recent film, mother! (2017) - which is similarly divisive and similarly brilliant - it's a work that seems to be playing with symbols and representations as opposed to a more tangible kind of reality that an audience can invest in, either emotionally or philosophically.

If we hold the story and its characters up to any kind of close scrutiny then nothing actually works and the whole thing just unravels into a muddle of unanswered questions and loose ends. But it's worth grappling with these issues and inconsistencies in order to experience how the story unfolds, and to appreciate how Lanthimos and his collaborators are able to put together these diverse influences to create something that feels so singular and so different.