Is “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” Worth the Sacrifice? You Be the Judge, Jury and …

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017)

For the record, I loved The Lobster, director Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous effort. Building on the tradition he had established in films like Alps and Dogtooth, he there brought his obsession with societies built on arcane systems of governance to glorious fruition in a mesmerizing tale anchored by a deliriously deadpan performance from Colin Farrell (Seven Psychopaths). Both Lanthimos and Farrell are back together again in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a movie that starts in a similar vein as its predecessor, the actor delivering lines in the same monotone as before, the camera tracking him in off-beat steadicam shots laden with cinematic meaning. Or not. As before, Lanthimos keeps us guessing, toying with our expectations of set-up and payoff. One thing is sure, however: the experience of watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer is deeply unpleasant. The question is: do we gain from it? Over a week after seeing the film, I’m still working on the answer.

This time around, Farrell plays Dr. Steven Murphy, a cardiologist married to a fellow doctor, Anna Murphy, played by the incomparable Nicole Kidman (The Beguiled). They have two kids, a boy and girl, and appear happily married, though quickly we are made to question their life together with the arrival of a mysterious teen boy, Martin, played by a very odd Barry Keoghan (’71). At first we think he is Steven’s son – perhaps from an affair – but when the riddle is solved the truth is even more disturbing. Steven has a score to settle, and the why and the how of his revenge is what eventually drives the plot. This being a Lanthimos film, there are rules to follow; ignore them and you die, though the reasons for everything are vague. Ultimately, the story boils down to this: what would you be prepared to do to save your family? What, or whom, would you sacrifice?

That’s a meaningful question. Put into practice, however, Steven’s response is difficult to stomach. I like that Lanthimos consistently pushes our buttons in a valiant attempt to provoke an emotional reaction, but I cannot say I enjoyed the experience of that reaction. The onscreen anguish of the characters may serve a narrative purpose, but it is something I can do without. Though brilliantly shot and cast, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, much like Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, released earlier this year, traffics in a kind of torture porn that risks losing itself in the act of self-flagellation. There is no denying its raw power, however. I may have been horrified, but I was not unmoved. Let’s leave it there, and you can judge whether the experience is worth it for you.

“The Beguiled” Entrances, Though from a Distance

The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola, 2017)

With a feature-filmmaking career that began in 1999, with The Virgin Suicides, and has continued since then with Lost in Translation (2003), Marie Antoinette (2006), Somewhere (2010), The Bling Ring (2013) and now The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola – the youngest child, and only daughter, of filmmakers Francis Ford and Eleanor Coppola – has proved herself adept at a certain kind of dreamy exploration of female awakening, be it of the sexual or self-actualized variety, often in reaction to the male-dominated world. Her films are peopled by women – usually young – struggling with issues of personal agency and identity. Men play important parts in these stories, as well, but are often there as dramatic obstacles or opportunities in the path towards whatever destiny awaits. And though Coppola has come under some criticism over her lack of racial diversity in her films – and in The Beguiled, in particular – hers is one of many needed feminine voices in the cinematic patriarchy, articulating her characters’ often inchoate longing for something just beyond their as-yet-unarticulated understanding. And though I may not entirely agree with the Cannes Film Festival jury’s decision to award her its 2017 Best Director Prize (making her only the second woman ever to win) – as I find her latest work narratively remote, if also fascinating – I nevertheless concur that Coppola is in full control of her visual aesthetic and the performances of her actors. Based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Thomas Cullinan (which was previously adapted for the screen in 1971), it’s a glorious, wild affair, much like the tendrils of Spanish moss that fill many of the exterior compositions.

The year is 1864 – “3 years into the Civil War,” as a title card informs us – and we are in Virginia, at the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Girls. Only five students remain, with but one teacher plus the headmistress as the two adult chaperones. The slaves, too, have long since fled, leaving the women especially alone (simultaneously removing racial tension from the story and opening Coppola up to charges of insensitivity), seemingly helpless. When one of the youngest girls, Amy (Oona Laurence, Lamb), comes across a wounded Union soldier in the woods – played by Colin Farrell (The Lobster) – she is at first afraid. Very quickly, however, he charms her with his gentle manner, and she agrees to help him hobble to the school. There, he collapses, and though the women consider handing him over, as a prisoner, to the nearby Confederate army, they agree to first heal him. Or rather, their formidable leader Miss Martha – played by the ever-powerful Nicole Kidman (Lion) – decides on the course of action, and undertakes the surgical repair of the soldier’s leg, herself. Seemingly capable of everything, she nevertheless swoons a bit as she cleans his body, lingering a little here and there.

And so the movie goes, with each character – even the small ones – confronting an unexpected rush of emotion and desire brought on by the mere presence of a captive male in their midst. Miss Edwina, the teacher – played by a restrained Kirsten Dunst (so fine in Season 2 of Fargo) – is more distraught than most, though the oldest of the girls, Alicia (Elle Fanning, The Neon Demon), is equally intrigued. The soldier, whose name, we learn, is Corporal John McBurney, flirts with all, indiscriminately, though his reasons, other than hoping that they not give him up to the Confederates, are unclear. Is he simply a man taking advantage of women, as is the wont and cultural prerogative of all men? Does he actually like any of them? Is he tired of war and looking for a refuge? It is to Coppola’s credit as writer and director that she successfully keeps us guessing, even after the film is done, about his motivations. The women, too, emerge as individually robust characters, each with her own distinct personality, who merge, collectively, into a daunting foe for Corporal McBurney once things turn ugly.

Which they do. Much has already been written about this film’s place in the Southern Gothic genre. Everyone is an hysterical mess, ravaged by loneliness, war and hormones. Add a drop of Y chromosome, and hysteria approaches madness. Coppola and her cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd (The Grandmaster) often bathe the proceedings in gorgeous, calming natural light, as if in contrast to the roiling emotions within. They also have a penchant for studied compositions, frequently framing the women in tableaux vivants – and otherwise offering  up still lifes of various object and food, throughout, as well – as if to empathize that all that follows is part of a carefully constructed play within the movie, with each person playing a preordained part. It’s beautiful to behold, if also stifling, which is its point, I assume, but also dramatically inert, at times. I loved much of what I was watching, but felt simultaneously detached. This estrangement from the story left me laughing when things turned outrageously gory, rather than horrified. Was that the right reaction? I’m not sure. But it’s the feeling of distance that ultimately left me less enthusiastic, by the end, than I thought I would be, given my positive reaction at the start. All the while, I remain in admiration of Coppola’s technique. Strong women confronting a man’s world? Nothing wrong with that.

Mr. Reed’s Metaphysical Neighborhood Presents the Best Film Acting of 2016

What follows is a list of what I consider the best acting in films released in 2016. On December 31, 2016, I published my list of best (and worst) films of the year, and most actors in most of the narrative (fiction) films on my list turned in admirable performances. The same goes with directors. I see no need to publish a separate “best directors” list, since if the film is good, then I credit the director. A few actors and actresses in films which I did not put among my highest choices (but maybe as a runner-up, although one actor, Ralph Fiennes, was in a film nowhere near my Top 10) still made it onto this new list, since they were so mesmerizing and memorable, even if the film was less so.

Therefore, the actors and actresses listed, below – each with a clip of his/her performance (when available, and if none is available – or if the available clip is not very good – then I include a trailer or featurette, instead) – are the 5 per category (I stick with just 5, like the Academy, though this is sometimes difficult) whose work most stands out (for me) within the context of the film they’re in; those performances which most contribute to raising the quality of the movie. All movie titles are hyperlinked to my review (if such a review exists; if not, I have linked to the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes page), and if you follow that link, you can learn more about the movie, itself, and (perhaps) my thoughts on what makes that actor’s performance so special in that movie.

In alphabetical order, by last name within each category, I give you:

BEST ACTRESS

Annette Bening, 20th Century Women

Betsy Brandt, Claire in Motion

Isabelle Huppert, Elle

Ruth Negga, Loving

Emma Stone, La La Land

BEST ACTOR

Casey Affleck,* Manchester by the Sea

Joel Edgerton, Loving

Colin Farrell, The Lobster

Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic

Denzel Washington, Fences

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Viola Davis, Fences (should be Best Actress, but she is being pushed in this category, instead, so … the clip may have a thumbnail of Denzel Washington, but mostly features Viola Davis)

Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women

Lily Gladstone, Certain Women (Gladstone is the Native-American woman tending the ranch who is also in the scenes with Kristen Stewart, pictured below in the thumbnail, rather than Gladstone)

Naomie Harris, Moonlight

Rachel Weisz, The Lobster (this clip has a thumbnail of Colin Farrell, but features – and is narrated by – Rachel Weisz)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash

Ben Foster, Hell or High Water (this clip has a thumbnail of Chris Pine – also good – but features Ben Foster just as much)

Dev Patel, Lion (should be Best Actor, but he is being pushed in this category, instead, so …)

Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight

*As far as Casey Affleck goes, I am aware of the disturbing allegations of past sexual harassment, but include him here, anyway, since his performance should be judged separately from his behavior. That said, I will not be unhappy if any of the other people on this list win awards, instead of him.