The first thing to know about the films of Yorgos Lanthimos is that they are influenced by the Theatre of the Absurd, a term that describes literary and theatrical works that aim to shock audiences out of complacency and attack established orthodoxies, such as the controlling mechanisms and purposes behind hierarchical constructs of power—family, religion, authoritarian institutions, and the comforting assumptions of political and social constructs.
Cinema is an effective vehicle for shaping societal attitudes and thinking, but it’s equally suited to examining the frameworks and strategies of social control. The films of Yorgos Lanthimos are exaggerated dystopian allegories designed to provoke viewers to reflect on the implicit ‘rules of engagement’ of human society and the interests that support the social contracts we live by—or, more accurately, acquiesce to. His characters are largely absurdist archetypes, ciphers designed to convey his thematic and critical intentions. They move and speak like automatons, a device that stems from his absurdist roots, but that also reveals the spiritual truth behind socialised normality: well-adjusted citizenry; obedient servants; the living dead.
As absurdist allegories, Lanthimos’s scenarios aren’t supposed to be taken literally, nor are they mere diversions about wackos designed solely to entertain. His use of exaggerated and jarring devices are intended to provoke viewers into questioning what the filmmaker is up to. In Dogtooth (2009) for example, why are we shown a close up of the father’s cock? Why are the children only allowed to watch home movies, and why are they being taught the wrong meanings to words? What’s the point of a ridiculous scenario about an unrealistic family who do and say absurd things?
The reviews for Dogtooth were largely favourable, and most recognised themes of control and submission though fear and confusion, but I didn’t read one that drew parallels with the world we live in—the world of ‘known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns’, the world Orwell saw coming, one large and compliant Guantanamo.
The success of THE LOBSTER marked a turning point for Lanthimos. It had detractors, but audiences and critics were largely impressed, despite some feeling that it fell apart in the second half, from the point when David (Colin Farrell) becomes a ‘Loner’ (outcasts who live in the woods) and falls in love (forbidden according to Loner rules) with ‘short-sighted woman’ (Rachel Wiesz). If anything, the opposite was true for me, which lead me to wonder if some viewers parted company with the film when things got “too” absurd.
Personally, I found The Lobster hard to warm to, partly because the satire of the first half was too emphatic, as if Lanthimos had parceled his thematic concerns into a crowd-pleasing farce about self-important wannabes, social misfits, and the often-absurd (sometimes oppressive) conventions of coupledom. Yet, this is the half that viewers generally agree on. One of the strengths of the first half was that it drew attention to the latent narcissism within socialisation, which of course extends to societal constructs, but the film moves towards a darker and more personal perspective in the second half, where love (the concept as well as the consequences) is regarded as dangerous. This will lead David and ‘short-sighted woman’ to escape the woods and take their chances in the surveillance-heavy oppression of 'normal' society, and towards an expression of mutual commitment that is as horrifying as it is desperately courageous.
The Lobster was ostensibly about coupledom, and the absurdities that often accompany our compulsion to pair off, but it was also about the courage required to protect and maintain it, as the last scene potently depicts. But Lanthimos has never been shy of heavy-handed metaphor, and in THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER he takes a leaf from the book of Michael Haneke to concoct a lacerating portrait of bourgeois privilege and indifference. Indeed, it’s not difficult to draw thematic and even structural parallels with Haneke’s 1997 provocation, Funny Games. In Sacred Deer, the agent of comeuppance comes in the form of 16-year-old family friend (and spawn of the devil), Martin (Barry Keoghan).
Colin Farrell delivers a similarly buttoned-down performance to the one he gave in The Lobster, this time playing a respected and successful cardiac surgeon (Dr Murphy) who, it transpires, was the doctor in charge when Martin’s father died on the operating table. The film’s opening shot of open-heart surgery, with the camera slowly zooming in on the heart, is less a contextualising image backgrounding Dr Murphy’s job and the death of Martin’s father than a clear signal of intent from Lanthimos and his long-term writing partner, Efthymis Filippou. They're putting the audience on notice that they plan to "go in", and they’re going in deep, so the opening shot serves as a little warning that this isn’t going to be a film for the faint of heart.
Nicole Kidman plays Dr Murphy’s wife, Anna, who is equally brilliant as an ophthalmologist. Kidman plays her with perfectly judged reserved self-possession, a privileged professional woman willing to do whatever is necessary to protect her family. In fact, she and her husband are prepared to go to great lengths to preserve the privileged lifestyle that they and their children enjoy. Martin is brought into the mix to test how far they will go, setting the scene for a full-blown dose of "the Hanekes", framed by an homage to the surface pleasures of Stanley Kubrick.
It’s a risky strategy, in part because those who don’t twig to the allegorical parallel between this visceral fiction and the reality of sending young soldiers (our children) to kill and be killed in the service of privilege and power may regard the horror visited upon the Murphy’s as distasteful and misanthropic self-indulgence, in fact even those who twig to the subtext might consider the extremes to be largely provocative for the sake of it, but I don't share that view—not yet. I may in time come to regard all of Lanthimos’s work as excessive and calculated, but for the moment I defend his determination to poke our eyes out in order to encourage us see more clearly.
As Anne Murphy say, "I don't understand why we should pay the price", but this is exactly the point that Mr Lanthimos and Mr Filippou would like us to ponder ...