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Cannes

Nicole Kidman Watch, Part 2: The Killing of a Sacred Deer booed, praised at Cannes

Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest split audiences on the Croisette

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Booing at Cannes is as much a tradition as the festival itself, and its reaches know no bounds, as Nicole Kidman found out Monday morning upon the premiere of The Killing of a Sacred Deer. When a film polarizes crowds on the Croisette, it’s not uncommon for festivalgoers to vent their disapproval as the credits roll, and this year, Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest joined an elite group of titles to have elicited the disdain of Cannes attendees.

Film critics, on the other hand, have answered the call of the naysayers with generally favorable notices for the project (Kidman’s second of four projects premiering at Cannes), calling it the “most accessible work” produced by the Greek-born filmmaker, whose prickly filmography — he most recently directed The Lobster — has slowly (but steadily) charted the rise of one of contemporary international cinema’s leading visionaries.

On paper, the film sounds as grim as Lanthimos’ previous works. It stars Colin Farrell as a successful surgeon, Steven, who forms a strange bond with a teenage boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan), and inserts the mysterious youth into his personal life, which also includes his ophthalmologist wife, Anna (Kidman) and two children. Needless to say, it appears as if things take a gravely sinister turn, with most reviews singling out Lanthimos’ firm grasp on creating a palpably unsettling mood that’s somehow easier to digest than his previous efforts.

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“Lanthimos guides us with supreme control toward a wordless coda, its confronting malevolence lingering after the end credits roll. The Greek director here further cements his position among the world’s most interesting contemporary filmmakers, stoking anticipation for his next English-language feature,” The Hollywood Reporter‘s David Rooney writes in his review. “[This] film’s grim scenario of a family under dire threat will make it hard for some to watch. But the impressive rigor of its craft, the skillfully subdued intensity of the acting and the startling originality of the story will make the film unmissable for anyone who cares about bold filmmaking.”

The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw adds: “Yorgos Lanthimos’s taboo horror The Killing of a Sacred Deer moves with a somnambulist’s certainty along its own distinctive spectrum of weird. It’s an intriguing, disturbing, amusing twist on something which in many ways could be a conventional horror-thriller from the 1970s or 1980s, or even a bunny-boiler nightmare from the 90s. There is a strident orchestral score, nightmarish fish-eye shooting angles, down low and up high, and people walking along corridors in such a way that makes forward movement feel like slo-mo falling.”

Though critics have praised Lanthimos’ direction, Kidman’s performance has been hailed as one of the film’s standout elements, with some critics comparing it to some of her less commercial turns of years past.

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“Kidman’s pricklingly ambiguous performance recalls her career-best work in Jonathan Glazer’s Birth: in close-up her face gives you volumes to read, but always holds back the final page,” Robbie Collin writes for The Telegraph. Referencing the same film, Screen Daily’s Jonathan Romney agrees, writing: “Kidman’s highly ambivalent performance is one of her best in ages, initially recapturing the quizzical detachment she showed in Jonathan Glazer’s Birth, but gradually ramping up to an intensity that is all the more frightening for its chilly calm.”

Alicia Silverstone, perhaps occupying the most prestigious film role of her career here as Martin’s mother, is being lauded as another highlight despite only appearing in one scene, with Rooney exclaiming: “Silverstone is a delight in her single scene, scaring Steven off with her aggressive play for him, and then returning in a last-ditch effort to the dessert he earlier declined. Desperate seduction lines don’t get much funnier than, ‘You’re not leaving until you try my tart!'”

Despite the sensationalized booing, it seems as if Lanthimos could have another awards contender on his hands just four months after his last Cannes competition title, The Lobster, scored an Oscar nod in the best original screenplay category. If the reviews are any indication, The Killing of a Sacred Deer could net technical support from the Academy’s below-the-line branches (perhaps for Thimios Bakatuakis’s cinematography), though Kidman could rise as a supporting actress contender as well.

Polarizing crowds and critics doesn’t necessarily spell disaster for a film at Cannes. The jury — this year fronted by Pedro Almodovar, with the likes of Jessica Chastain, Will Smith joining the ranks as well — often operates independently, and its taste is notoriously difficult to trace as the festival rages. Kidman’s reception, however, is promising, and it’s not entirely preposterous to consider her a frontrunner for the festival’s Best Actress prize outside of Oscar prospects. Whether she’ll receive the honor for The Beguiled, Deer, or at all remains to be seen.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer opens Nov. 3 on domestic screens via A24. Check out what critics are saying about the movie in the review excerpts below.

David Rooney (The Hollywood Reporter)
“Set for U.S. release Nov. 3 through A24, which steered The Lobster to perform beyond expectations for such a uniquely strange movie, the new film’s grim scenario of a family under dire threat will make it hard for some to watch. But the impressive rigor of its craft, the skillfully subdued intensity of the acting and the startling originality of the story will make the film unmissable for anyone who cares about bold filmmaking.”

Peter Debruge (Variety)
“As allegories of extreme discomfort go, this one is masterfully orchestrated. And if recognized as the tragedy it is (that is, stripped of its thrills and viewed instead as a pathetic fait accompli), then a direct line can be drawn between the film — merely the latest and most directly engaging example of the so-called “Greek Weird Wave” revolutionizing world cinema at the moment — and Greece’s far-older dramatic tradition, where characters such as Agamemnon and Medea were confronted with decisions equally impossible to bear.”
Best Kidman shout-out: “Fortunately, Farrell and Kidman are astonishingly gifted at playing the subtext of every scene. Consider the moment in which Steven insists Anna follow him down to the basement. Has he chosen her as his sacrifice? Is this the moment? None of the dialogue acknowledges the shocking development that follows — to the extent that the East German Stasi could be listening in and wouldn’t pick up on what’s actually happening — but the two actors communicate what’s being said in total clarity with their eyes.”

Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian)
“Yorgos Lanthimos’s taboo horror The Killing of a Sacred Deer moves with a somnambulist’s certainty along its own distinctive spectrum of weird. It’s an intriguing, disturbing, amusing twist on something which in many ways could be a conventional horror-thriller from the 1970s or 1980s, or even a bunny-boiler nightmare from the 90s. There is a strident orchestral score, nightmarish fish-eye shooting angles, down low and up high, and people walking along corridors in such a way that makes forward movement feel like slo-mo falling.”

Robbie Collin (The Telegraph)
Lanthimos and his regular co-writer Efthymis Filippou stake out this terrain with such precision, poise and nerve that summarising Martin’s scheme here would do the film a serious disservice. But unlike the director’s previous film The Lobster (2015), which also starred Farrell – or his earlier Greek-language films, including 2009’s Oscar-nominated Dogtooth, for that matter – the premise isn’t elaborate, unfolds in a recognisable world, and doesn’t require much digestion. (No-one’s being transformed into animals if they can’t find love in a month and a half here.)”
Best Kidman shout-out: “Kidman’s pricklingly ambiguous performance recalls her career-best work in Jonathan Glazer’s Birth: in close-up her face gives you volumes to read, but always holds back the final page.”

Steve Pond (The Wrap)
“… 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.”

Kaleem Aftab (The Independent)
“There are so many ideas in the movie to chew over. One is the use of Martin as plot. Whenever he appears on screen he pushes the story forward, in one moment even deriding the use of metaphors and symbolism in the movie. It’s almost as if Lanthimos is making a comment on the commercial pressures that mean that to make bigger budget, more ambitious films, he has to compromise on his more abstract filmmaking and its emphasis on psychoanalysis. This one is such a knowing film, incredibly made, and a contender for a big prize in Cannes, but it’s just too clinical.”

Donald Clarke (The Irish Times)
“The prevailing sense is of a comfortable world being confronted with the universal chaos it daily seeks to ignore. In that sense, Sacred Deer has much in common with Michael Haneke’s Happy End, which it competes for the Palme d’Or, but the Lanthimos film is juicier, gamier and more at home to the unreal. Some may balk at its oddness. But there is little doubt that it is exactly as its creators intended. A potential prize winner.”

David Sexton (Evening Standard)
“For all the horror, The Lobster, which took the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2015, could be enjoyed as a grotesque satire on dating. The Killing Of A Sacred Deer is more perverse, more extreme, as though Lanthimos now wants to rival David Lynch.”

Jonathan Romney (Screen Daily)
“The baleful score, dominated by eldritch high pitches and basso rumbles, is culled, à la Kubrick, from sources including modern composers György Ligeti and Sofia Gubaidulina, although some scenes rely too heavily on the music to carry the dramatic weight. It’s also arguable that the film’s rigorously controlled suspense means that the drama stays too much within a narrow dynamic range, with too few high points of intensity to give the film all the dramatic modulation it needs. But it’s a powerful and unsettling film that significantly broadens the repertoire of one of Europe’s most singular and wayward auteurs.”
Best Kidman shout-out: “The acting is terrific, a heavily-bearded Farrell creating the picture of a tightly internalised, seemingly cold man who finally attains the regal grandeur associated with a hero of classical tragedy. Kidman’s highly ambivalent performance is one of her best in ages, initially recapturing the quizzical detachment she showed in Jonathan Glazer’s Birth, but gradually ramping up to an intensity that is all the more frightening for its chilly calm.”