Acclaimed director Yorgos Lanthimos recruited a stellar cast, led by Colin Farrell and Oscar winner Nicole Kidman, for his first American film, the darkly disturbing thriller The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which premiered to rave reviews at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. The film won strong critical praise at Cannes where absurdist writing duo Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou were awarded the Best Screenplay award, creating a whole new buzz around Lanthimos’ unique sense of humour, which with this feature film places him at the podium as a Polanski and Cubrick successor.
The Athens-born director studied filmmaking at the Hellenic Cinema and Television School Stavrakos in the Greek capital. His films include My Best Friend, Kinetta, Dogtooth, Alps and The Lobster. He was nominated for an Academy Award, along with Efthymis Filippou, for Best Original Screenplay for The Lobster.
Following the critical success of The Lobster – which also featured Farrell, and won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2015 – Lanthimos and Filippou decided to play on the idea of a teenage boy who seeks revenge for his father’s death, further cementing their position among the world’s most influencing contemporary filmmakers.
Lanthimos has been dubbed ‘father of the Greek Weird Wave’, bringing a new brood of psychological horror and allegory to the big screen.
Last year Melbourne had the chance to delve into Lanthimos’ and Filippou’s body of work showcased as part of the Greek Film Festival that culminated with The Lobster, and this year, cinema lovers saw the duo’s vision mature and develop through The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
“It changes most of the time,” Lanthimos says of their writing process. “It’s always different where we start. It’s maybe an idea, or we like to explore a condition, or we want to do something about this thing, or there’s an interesting set up that we’re interested in.
“I think this time we started with a boy who has lost his father and he wants to make things right with the doctor who operated on his father and who he considers responsible. I think with The Killing of a Sacred Deer it’s mostly about justice, revenge, faith, and choice – the inability to decide necessarily what’s right and wrong when you’re facing huge dilemmas in life.”
Farrell plays heart surgeon Steven and Kidman, his wife Anna. They have two beautiful, healthy children and live in an expensive house in the Cincinnati suburbs. But their privileged existence is threatened when Steven introduces Martin (Barry Keoghan) into their lives.
The 16-year-old is the son of a man who died on Steven’s operating table and at first he is polite and deferential, almost like a surrogate child for the surgeon. But gradually the audience discovers that Martin is seeking revenge for his father’s death. He presents Steven with a terrible choice – either ‘sacrifice’ his wife or one of his children or all three will die.
“That situation of a boy who has lost his father because of someone – because of what he considered was someone else’s fault, I think that was the initial premise that we started with, and then it became a more complex structure with supernatural elements,” says Lanthimos.
“Much of it comes, weirdly enough, very logically into the story because of what we’re facing – how to increase the pressure on the characters in order to reveal more and more about human nature. We try to push things, and that makes us come up with all these other tools and elements of creating that.”
Reviewers at Cannes noted that the title of the film and its themes of sacrifice and justice referenced Greek tragedy. The director responds to this, “We didn’t necessarily take inspiration, but while we were writing the script we realised there are some parallels with Greek tragedy, and we thought it was an interesting idea, or that it just made sense that we would reference it in the film.
“Also I find it quite interesting that these are themes that we’ve been asking ourselves about that are from so many years ago – it’s been around forever. I just found it an interesting association to make, but we never started by trying to adapt a Greek tragedy.”
The supernatural elements in the film – Martin curses Steven’s family which manifests when, as he predicts, the children find they cannot walk – came to them naturally during the writing process, Lanthimos adds.
“I think starting from the idea – which was initially just a young boy who loses his father, blames someone else for it and asks for it to be made right, whatever that means, in his mind – starting from that, we were trying to figure out a way that we would structure a story; that would create these kind of questions and put this kind of pressure on human beings; that they would have to make impossible choices. Working on that to figure out how it would be efficient, I think we started going into tragedies and to the horror genre, to having a dialogue with all those kind of things.”
Making his first film in America was a logical choice, too, he says. “To me, this one felt like more of an American film. I work very instinctively and I don’t know exactly what the reasons were for that. One thing that is given is that I do for the moment want to work in the English language, so that makes the options smaller.
“There was a lot of dialogue about whether it should be a British film or it should be an American film, and it just felt like, because of the theme, more of an American film.”
“Also”, he continues, “the dialogue between the genres that we are familiar with made more sense for me – even the medical system – it made more sense that this film was in America.
“There were various reasons like that, which helped me make a choice. When you’re open to everything you just need to figure out details of things to make a choice,” an experience he says he enjoyed.
“I haven’t [worked] in New York or Los Angeles, in the bigger cities, but working in a smaller city in the US, I found quite easy.”
“I think people are much more excited by having a film in their city. It’s easier to get around – there’s a certain flexibility and freedom about how you do things. There’s not so much structure in place or so many rules that you can’t be flexible, even creatively speaking, because every practical thing somehow affects what you do creatively. So yes, I enjoyed working there.”
‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ is screening nationally. Check your cinema guides for details.