Film reviews round-up: The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Thelma, Ferrari: Race To Immortality, 78/52

Yorgos Lanthimos’ unsettling new film, a girl with psycho-kinetic powers, a racing doc, and an examination of Psycho’s iconic moment

Geoffrey Macnab
Thursday 02 November 2017 11:37
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Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell in ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’
Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell in ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’

The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (15)

★★★★☆

Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, 121 mins, starring: Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Alicia Silverstone, Raffey Cassidy, Barry Keoghan, Bill Camp

Yorgos Lanthimos’s surrealistic revenge tragedy is all the more chilling because of its absurdist and macabre humour. The film is set in a modern city but its characters behave as if they’re battling the fates in an ancient Aeschylus drama.

In his second film with the director after the equally offbeat and disconcerting The Lobster, Colin Farrell gives a finely judged character performance as a softly spoken family man whose world is coming crumbling down. He’s a bearded, academic type, not the golden alpha male we remember from earlier films like Alexander and Miami Vice.

The settings are very familiar. Most of the story takes place in the hospital where Steven (Farrell) works as a heart surgeon and in the “clean, beautiful” neighbourhood where he lives with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), an ophthalmologist, his adolescent daughter, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and his long-haired 12-year-old son, Bob (Sunny Suljic).

We’re in affluent, middle-class America but Lanthimos makes even the most routine scenes unsettling. There is something very ominous about the hospital corridors, which seem to stretch forever.

A routine dinner in which Steven and Anna make small talk with their kids takes on a jarring tone because of the framing and dark lighting. We are aware that something bad or strange is soon going to happen. The dialogue is often incongruous too. The casual way that Steven boasts that his daughter has just begun to menstruate can’t help but seem creepy.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer- trailer

The opening images are deliberately grotesque. Lanthimos shows us a blubbery, pulsing heart being operated on as classical music blasts on the soundtrack. When the procedure is over, the surgeon tosses his blood-smeared gloves in the trash.

The director shoots his characters from oblique angles, making them looking sinister. The frequent meetings between Steven and a polite but strangely unctuous and threatening teenager, Martin (Barry Keoghan), are jarring. We don’t know why Steven is devoting so much of his time to the boy or how they are linked. Martin exercises a strange hold over the surgeon, who is always ready to interrupt his schedule on the teenager’s behalf.

As in classical tragedy, the protagonist is paying for his hubris. Steven is arrogant. He makes a flippant speech at an awards dinner, cracking a joke about a surgeon not surviving an operation. In his mind, surgeons are like gods. If patients die, it can never be their fault.

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There is a bizarre sex scene in which Anna lies before him as if she is a sacrificial victim, there for his delectation. All the time, though, the filmmakers are dropping hints about the surgeon’s insecurity and guilt. The self-righteous way in which he and Anna turn down cocktails at an awards dinner is a sure sign that he had a drinking problem in the past.

In one especially creepy and comic scene, Martin lures the surgeon to have dinner at his house and to meet his mother (Alicia Silverstone). They watch Groundhog Day together and the gushing mother makes her move on Steven, praising his beautiful and delicate surgeon’s hands.

Martin is acting as something between a matchmaker and a pimp for his own mother. Steven resists but not as fiercely as you’d expect. It’s the type of scene you might expect to find in one of Todd Solondz’s satires about hypocrisy and hidden secrets in middle-class America.

The film also carries echoes of films like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games or Straw Dogs in which respectable, mild-mannered types are pushed into an extreme situation in which their capacity for violence becomes apparent. Keoghan’s Martin has the same delinquent malice as the youngsters who prey on the family in Haneke’s film.

The difference here is the element of the supernatural. Martin is like an adolescent Rasputin. In his pursuit of what he considers to be justice, he is able to curse characters and to cause terrible afflictions to befall them.

The Killing Of The Sacred Deer uses horror and thriller-movie conventions but is far too idiosyncratic to seem like a genre piece. In its deadpan way, it is often funny but the humour will always sit next to an act of violence or by some freak misfortune befalling one of the protagonists. As the strict but still glamorous mom, Kidman has a hint of a Lady Macbeth or a Clytemnestra but one displaced to the suburbs.

Steven’s medical knowledge isn’t much help when his children suddenly lose the use of their limbs and begin to crawl and flail around like rag dolls.

Lanthimos’s vision of human nature is bleak. The most disconcerting aspect here is how pragmatic his characters are in the face of their misfortune. They will use torture and intimidation; Anna will offer sexual favours to a friend and colleague in exchange for information; Steven will sacrifice his own kin if that is the easiest way to sort out the problem.

Throughout Sacred Deer, the sublime and the banal are intertwined. At the same time characters are wrestling with matters of life and death, they will also be eating French fries doused in plenty of ketchup or listening to their MP3 players.

Husband will turn against wife, brother against sister, as if betrayal is just another lifestyle choice. Lanthimos is never going to be hired to make the next Paddington movie but he is an utterly distinctive filmmaker who knows just how to get under the audience’s skin.

Thelma (15)

★★★☆☆

Dir. Joachim Trier, 116 mins, starring: Eili Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelsen, Ellen Dorrit Petersen

Thelma is an intriguing but unwieldy mix between European art-house drama and supernatural horror. Its Norwegian director throws in references to classic Dreyer and Tarkovsky movies one moment and to Stephen King adaptations like Carrie the next.

The beautifully shot prelude in which we see a father and a young daughter walking across the ice on a hunting expedition hints at the turmoil to come. The father has feelings of fury toward the daughter. It takes much of the film for us to understand why.

Eili Harboe plays Thelma, a young woman from a very religious background who has just started university in Oslo. Thelma endures the typical experiences of the provincial outsider thrown into a new environment. She has no friends.

The acquaintances she makes tease her because of her innocence. Her parents are continually calling her, trying to make that she doesn’t get into trouble. She has a crush on a young fellow student Anya (Kaya Wilkins) but feels very conflicted about being attracted to another woman.

The storytelling style continually shifts. The trigger for the changes is the protagonist’s condition. She is subject to what appear to be epileptic fits. They are, in fact, “psychogenic seizures”. Trier will move from low-key naturalism to a far more expressionistic style.

There are some astonishing, phantasmagoric set-pieces in which a snake will coil its way into the heroine’s mouth or she will hallucinate that she is drowning in a swimming pool that is bricked over. Thelma has the same psycho-kinetic powers as Carrie.

She can cause windows to shatter, the lights to go out and she can manipulate the behaviour of those around her (she doesn’t need to send texts when she can use telepathy to bend others to her will).

It is never clear whether she is a victim or is using her powers to wreak havoc in the lives of others. Nor does Trier distinguish between what is real and what is fantasy. As played in hyper-sensitive fashion by Harboe, Thelma seems like an innocent but she is far more resilient and knowing than she appears.

The film is uneven. Shots of characters bursting into flames or of babies buried beneath the ice sit uncomfortably next to the slower, more thoughtful scenes chronicling Thelma’s friendship with Anya and her attempts to adjust to campus life. Her ultra-religious parents aren’t at all sympathetic. Her father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) is bullying and dogmatic.

Trier never seems certain whether he is making a full-blown horror film or a rites-of-passage drama about a repressed young student trying to overcome her religious hang-ups and fears about sex.

The lurches in storytelling style make Thelma distinctive and unsettling but they also become increasingly frustrating. The director is trying to have it both ways – to combine shock tactics and ideas from exploitation movies with subtle and nuanced characterisation. The result is a film that, for all its moments of brilliance, doesn’t satisfy on either level.

Ferrari: Race To Immortality (15)

★★★★☆

Dir. Daryl Goodrich, 91 mins, featuring: Enzo Ferrari, Mike Hawthorn, Peter Collins, Richard Williams

Grand Prix racing in the 1950s is shown as being an utterly lethal pastime in this fascinating but very morbid documentary about the Ferrari team of the period.

“Win or die and you’ll be immortal” was Enzo Ferrari’s message to his drivers. They appeared to accept that dying came with the territory. A driver would usually get killed on a Sunday and his colleagues would be distraught. By Monday, though, their minds would be on the next week’s race.

“One must keep working continuously otherwise you think of death,” was another of Ferrari’s nuggets of wisdom. The team boss looked and sounded like a sleeker version of a Bond villain. His attitude was chilling but the results he achieved were astonishing. He pushed his drivers to extremes and played them against each other but they still regarded him with respect and even affection.

There have been several documentaries about the motor racing world in recent years. This is one of the best. Director Darryl Goodrich and his team make excellent use of archive material. We hear voice-overs from interviewees but don’t see anyone’s faces until close to the end – and Goodrich is therefore able to preserve the spell that we are really back in this era.

It helps, too, that the Ferrari drivers were such extraordinarily dramatic figures. Most of the focus is on the two British drivers, Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins; debonair types with a reckless and cheerfully fatalistic approach to their sport.

The Italians Eugenio Castellotti and Luigi Musso were equally charismatic. Perhaps the most colourful driver of all was the playboy and aristocrat, Alfonso de Portago, as adept in a bobsleigh as in a Ferrari.

The drivers are likened to fighter pilots and gladiators. “We were intoxicated by the atmosphere of these wonderful, wild men,” one woman says.

Even at a distance of more than half a century, footage of the crashes is shocking. The cars would burst into flames. Drivers didn’t wear seatbelts because they’d far rather be thrown out of their vehicles than burned alive.

An interviewee remembers the crowd being disappointed after a crash because the driver survived.

Spectators themselves could often be the victims. The account of the crash at Le Mans in 1955 which caused the death of over 80, including many children (who were sitting in the front rows), is horrifying.

“Men went out to drive these red cars not sure if they were going to come back alive,” an observer notes of the Ferrari racers. The startling fact is that not a single one of the five drivers whose stories are foregrounded survived the decade.

It’s debatable whether their feats are really remembered today by anyone other than the most dedicated followers of the sport. In spite of Enzo Ferrari’s promises, it turned out that immortality wasn’t guaranteed after all.

78/52 (15)

★★★☆☆

Dir. Alexandre O Philippe, 92 mins, featuring: Guillermo del Toro, Peter Bogdanovich, Bret Easton Ellis, Jamie Lee Curtis, Karyn Kusama, Eli Roth, Oz Perkins, Leigh Whannell, Walter Murch, Danny Elfman, Elijah Wood,

Alexandre O Philippe’s thoroughgoing new feature documentary pulls back the curtain on the shower scene in Psycho, famously shot with 78 different camera angles and 52 cuts. The director and his interviewees pore over the scene in exhaustive detail, looking at it from every conceivable angle.

Their discussion touches both on the formal qualities of the filmmaking – how the scene was edited, the use of the shrieking Bernard Herrmann music etc – and the seismic cultural impact of Hitchcock’s decision to kill off his star Janet Leigh so early in the movie.

The documentary lasts 90 minutes but you sense that it could have been far longer. Guillermo del Toro talks about Hitchcock’s “biblical” sense of punishment. Other interviewees link the scene to Rembrandt and Rubens paintings or suggest that it had the same shock effect as the Lumiere brothers’ very first films.

Critics and filmmakers mull over what Psycho revealed about the changing nature of American family life and attitudes toward mothers at a time of increasing juvenile delinquency. We are offered psychoanalytic and feminist interpretations of a sequence which director Karyn Kusama describes as being “the first modern expression of the female body under assault and in some ways it is its most pure expression.”

We even get discussions of the representation of American bathrooms in cinema. One critic links the film to the Clutter murders, written about in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Others point to Hitchcock’s showmanship – in particular, his insistence that no latecomers should be allowed to enter the cinema.

Horror directors acknowledge its influence on their work. A few interviewees (notably Elijah Wood) sound like fanboys. Novelists like Brett Easton Ellis reflect on the way the film changed American attitudes toward murder.

Philippe has assembled a very impressive team of commentators who come at Psycho from very different perspectives. He also throws in plenty of archive footage of Hitchcock himself, making mischief and claiming (entirely disingenuously) that the film was intended as a “big joke”.

78/52 is a fascinating affair, bound to appeal to movie lovers and social theorists alike even if it does sometimes seem more like a film studies lecture than a conventional piece of entertainment.

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