In the annals of 2017 Cannes Film Festival weirdness, “Jupiter’s Moon” gave us a Mexican immigrant who could fly after he was shot, “The Square” put Elisabeth Moss’ character in a perfectly normal roommate situation with a chimpanzee and “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” introduced Elle Fanning as an innocent alien falling in love with a punk-rock wannabe.
And then along came Yorgos Lanthimos to say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
His film “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” started with a close-up of open heart surgery and ended with a horrifying scene involving duct tape, a shotgun, three pillowcases and a wool cap pulled low — and in between was lots of deliberately banal, stilted dialogue in a virtuoso provocation of almost thrilling severity and control.
And by the way, it might be the director’s most normal movie.
In the current-day cinema, nobody does deadpan absurdity and black humor quite like Lanthimos, the Greek director responsible for “Dogtooth” and “The Lobster.”
The first of those was the weirdest Oscar foreign-language nominee since “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”; the latter dropped Colin Farrell and John C. Reilly into a hotel where single guests had 45 days to find a romantic partner or be transformed into an animal of their choosing.
Lanthimos does absurdist black comedy on steroids, with a side of politics if you look hard enough, and any sense that he might be making a mainstream move by hiring Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell and shooting in the U.S. was immediately dismissed a few minutes into the first Cannes press screening of “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.”
Sure, the film, which is one of four movies in the festival being distributed by A24, has two bona fide mainstream movie stars in Farrell and Kidman. But both of them have shown an occasional taste in the past for what we might call unconventional entertainment, and Lanthimos clearly didn’t hire them because he wanted a multiplex smash.
Farrell and Kidman play husband and wife; he’s a cardiac surgeon, she’s an ophthalmologist. He takes a troubled teenage boy (the genuinely scary Barry Keoghan) under his wing, haunted by the fact that the boy’s father died on his operating table a few years earlier. And then things go very, very wrong.
At first, typically for Lanthimos, the mood is studiously placid. People talk to each other in dialogue that is a little too stilted and too banal, with forced pleasantries occasionally yielding to what passes for idle chit-chat in Lanthimos-land: “Our daughter started menstruating last week,” Farrell’s character says to a colleague.
Meanwhile, the music keeps you on edge and the tracking shots down long hallways can’t help but recall what Stanley Kubrick did with the horror genre in “The Shining.”
And for a while, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” feels as if it’s Lanthimos’ version of a deranged-stalker movie, albeit one polished to a stunning, almost Kubrickian level of coldness and precision.
And then it gets overheated and hysterical and very, very dark, making it impossible to keep laughing at the absurdities and hard to turn away from the mounting horror.
That might make it Lanthimos’ most conventional film in some ways. Rather than creating a wackadoodle alternative universe the way “Dogtooth,” “Alps” and “The Lobster” did, he and his longtime co-writer, Efthymis Filippou, ground this one in our world. They put their singular spin on the kind of story that could have been told by more straightforward filmmakers who could have delivered just another suspense thriller tinged with the supernatural.
Lanthimos, of course, doesn’t deliver just another anything. “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is disturbing and cold, and it prompted scattered boos at the end of the screening because of course it did. Lanthimos is not everyone’s cup of tea, and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” makes no concessions to taste.
But it called to mind an interesting story I heard back in 2010, when “Dogtooth” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Small committees watched the nine shortlisted films over a three-day weekend, with meal breaks in between, before voting to select the five nominees.
“Dogtooth,” one of the members of the New York committee told me, was shown just before the dinner break. “If we had voted as soon as the screening ended, ‘Dogtooth’ wouldn’t have had a chance,” the person said. “But at the end of the dinner break, we realized that we’d spent the entire dinner talking about it. That’s why it got nominated.”
“The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” too, will require some additional processing. Maybe the boo birds will spend their Cannes lunches mulling over what they’ve seen and deciding they were too hasty. Maybe not. Lanthimos does what he wants — and we’re all the richer for it, even if it creeps us out sometimes.