'The Killing of a Sacred Deer' review: A lumbering, idiosyncratic horror/thriller/comedy misfire
The perplexing and tedious dramatic thriller "The Killing of a Sacred Deer" (opening in additional cities Oct. 27) moves just too slowly and takes far too long before anything of note happens to ever gain traction as either a compelling mystery or engrossing drama.
"Sacred Deer" is many things - but the film never fully commits to any one endeavor, resulting in a film packed with half measures. If it's a drama, try telling that to any of the characters, whose reaction to the unfolding plot is an odd lack of reaction. If it's a mystery, then why does the film defuse virtually all of the suspense in the second half? It this half-cooked movie supposed to be a thriller or a comedy? ... That's not a rhetorical musing - that's a serious question.
The latest from director Yorgos Lanthimos ("The Lobster," "Dogtooth") suffers the painful one-two punch of moving at a glacial pacing and forcing the audience to endure its bloated run time. This film can be broken into two halves - the first half is a head-scratching "what is happening" exercise and the second half leaves the audience asking "why is any of this happening?" The first act is an hour long - that is a problem. "Sacred Deer" patiently takes its time introducing the audience to the surgeon, his wife and their children and his colleagues. The only remotely interesting aspect of the first hour is the odd relationship between the surgeon and an odd teenage boy -- and it's only intriguing because the film takes its sweet time in revealing the exact nature of their weird relationship.
But after an hour of oddly stilted, monotone and mundane dialogue, "Sacred Deer" takes a hard and jarring turn. Something unexpected and unexplained happens to the surgeon's family. What's even more surprising: "Sacred Deer" becomes a bizarrely high concept movie -- and the film's ridiculous premise snaps into focus. But it's worth repeating that it takes half of the movie's total runtime to finally get to a point where the premise finally takes shape. That tedious approach may work with a captive movie theater, but the film practically dares audiences to hit the eject button. When this movie hits some subscription, the vast majority of audiences will either fall asleep or just cut bait and move on to whatever else is in their queue.
In another shocking/disappointing development, what "Sacred Deer" patiently builds, it quickly undermines with a single scene of supernatural(?) exposition. What ever mystery the film worked so painstakingly hard to establish, one conversation practically explains how the rest of the film will play out. The motive for this jarring plot turn is murky (at best) and the film offers very little to explain how or why the mysterious affliction occurs - it just is. Even allowing the film some degree of magical realism does not justify the long build up or the many frustrating unanswered questions surrounding the mysterious infliction.
In addition to a plodding pace and bizarre plot twist, the characters are about as bland as possible. The surgeon, his wife and their two children all speak in the same flat and wooden cadence - their dialogue is just a transaction of words and not dimensional characters conversing. And it's not just the family - it's as if all the charisma was drained from the cast and they just talk at each other.
Not that any movie needs to fit into one bucket or another, but "Sacred Deer" has an usually high number of odd moments that feel like they are supposed to be funny - but just are not. The film is overrun with tense or mysterious moments - but it also randomly drops in bleakly comical beats from time to time. It's only in these moments were Farrell's relentlessly deadpan character has any sort of energy. Moments of respite are one thing, but these half-hearted attempts at humor rarely illicit more than a light chuckle because they happen at weird moments in the movie and none are executed with any confidence.
And yet - despite itself - "Sacred Deer" is mildly absorbing to the end. Having a supporting character explain how the rest of the film will play out wrings much of the tension from the second half, yet, the film still somehow manages to maintain a minimal amount of intrigue. It's clear the surgeon will have to make some choice - but it's just unclear what choice he will make ... and how he'll do it. But it's no great victory for the film that its hold on the audience is minimal -- basically anyone watching will just want to know how it ends up but not have any real emotional investment into the ending. And, as if to leave the audience with one last parting shot, the film's climax - which decides the fate of its main characters - is more ridiculous than it is dramatic.
The tragedy of this film is that a brilliant film exists somewhere inside of "Sacred Deer" - but it's just buried beneath a twisted pile of conflicting genre tones and poor editing choices. Maybe a better, more focused and confident cut of this film could be cobbled together with a re-edit but this specific version of "Sacred Deer" is just barely gripping enough to overcome its many poor storytelling faults.
Final verdict: It's hard to recommend a suspense-bereft "thriller" or a "drama" with stiff characters and only the minimal amount of narrative tension. The conceit of "Sacred Deer" is simple and audacious - but the execution of this film is a misfire on several levels.
"The Killing of a Sacred Deer" opens in select cities Oct. 27. The drama has a running time of 120 minutes and is rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content, some graphic nudity and language.