THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER
(UK/Ireland - 2017)
LOBSTER star Colin Farrell for this brilliant mindfuck that puts Greek myth and tragedy into modern American suburbia and turns it into a dark and disturbing arthouse horror film. Shot and set in Cincinnati, OH, one of the most quintessentially midwest American cities, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER takes its time, building tension, and methodically tightening its grip. Farrell is Dr. Steven Murphy, a renowned cardiologist with a wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman, who starred with Farrell in last year's THE BEGUILED, which was shot after SACRED DEER but released first), teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and young son Bob (Sunny Suljic). Unbeknownst to his family, Steven frequently meets with Martin (DUNKIRK's Barry Keoghan), a polite but troubled 16-year-old. The nature of their relationship isn't revealed until much later, but it appears to be a Big Brother or a mentor-type situation, as Martin's father is dead and his mother (Alicia Silverstone) doesn't seem to be all there in the two years since his passing. After Steven invites Martin to meet his family, the boy's neediness escalates and he starts showing up at Steven's office unannounced, demanding he come to his mother's house for dinner, watch GROUNDHOG DAY with him ("It was my dad's favorite movie") and psychologically manipulating and slowly seducing Kim. Then Martin drops the hammer and Steven is forced to contend with the extent of what the awkward teenager has in store for him and his family.
To say anymore would involve far too many spoilers, but THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER is hypnotic in ways we rarely see since the loss of Stanley Kubrick. The shot compositions, the long, static takes, and the cold, antiseptic interiors of the hospital and the Steadicam prowling its endless hallways like some sort of Overlook Medical Center all cast that vividly Kubrick spell, at least until the third act when things take a more pronounced Michael Haneke-inspired turn. Lanthimos has fashioned a film that is stilted and awkward by design. These characters are recognizably typical American people but they often talk like they're from another world, effectively emphasizing and almost darkly satirizing the cold detachment so vital to Kubrick. People say inappropriate things with little or no provocation: everyone is fixated on Steven's "beautiful" hands and they're mentioned in practically every other scene. "Do you have hair under your arms?" Bob asks Martin. It's the kind of movie where Martin's mother will start sucking Steven's thumb after he declines dessert and when he's uncomfortable and tries to leave, she sternly intones "I won't let you leave until you've tried my tart." It's the kind of movie where Steven impulsively tells his nine-year-old son that as a child, he once jerked off his drunk, passed-out stepfather ("The sheets were covered in sperm..."). And what prompts Steven to tell a colleague (Bill Camp) at a swanky gala hospital event "Our daughter started menstruating last week..."? Dysfunction is everywhere and the perfection of the American dream is all surface. Steven and Anna love one another but their sex life is bizarre--she strips and lies motionless, almost corpse-like, while he gropes himself, and it's a technique Kim mimics when she tries to initiate her idea of sex with an uninterested Martin, indicating that she's probably watched her parents. The film pulls no punches with its harrowing finale, and like any Lanthimos film, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER is decidedly not for everyone (it's closer in spirit to DOGTOOTH than the darkly comedic THE LOBSTER, the latter seeming downright commercial in retrospect). But it's filled with outstanding performances by actors tasked with difficult roles (especially the quietly remarkable turn by Keoghan, who's even better here than he was as the doomed George in DUNKIRK), spellbinding camera work and cinematography by Thimios Bakatakis, and a unique and uncompromising vision on the part of its creators. Lanthimos is one of the masters of today's cinema. (R, 121 mins)
(UK - 2017)
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS became a surprise hit in the fall of 2017, but another Agatha Christie adaptation arrived a couple of weeks later and no one knew about it. That's a shame because CROOKED HOUSE, while still flawed, is an overall better film despite Sony's apparent disinterest in promoting it, opting to dump it on 16 screens and VOD with no publicity at all (it wasn't even a theatrical release in the UK, where it premiered on Channel 5). Christie's novel, published in 1949, has fallen through the cracks over the decades even though it was one of the legendary writer's personal favorites of her work. She was especially proud of the incredibly uncompromising ending, which could be why there's never been a CROOKED HOUSE movie until now (there was a four-part BBC radio drama in 2008), and why this adaptation might've been a tough sell for mainstream audiences, even with the presence of some fine actors and a script co-written by GOSFORD PARK screenwriter and DOWNTON ABBEY creator Julian Fellowes. Fellowes' screenplay dated back to 2011, when Neil LaBute was originally attached to direct and Julie Andrews, Gabriel Byrne, and Gemma Arterton set to star. That fell apart in pre-production and the film eventually got made several years later with Gilles Paquet-Brenner (SARAH'S KEY, DARK PLACES) at the helm, reworking Fellowes' script (RAPA NUI writer Tim Rose Price is also credited) and losing all of the initially attached cast. Crooked House is populated by some of Christie's most loathsome characters, whose narcissism and misanthropy are obviously what initially drew LaBute (IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS) to the project. Paquet-Brenner tones that down a bit, but CROOKED HOUSE still contains some of the most bitterly sniping repartee in any Christie work.
Charles Hayward (Max Irons) is a British spy-turned-private eye in 1950s London (the film moves the book's setting ahead about a decade). He's hired by former flame Sophia Leonides (Stefanie Martini) to investigate the death of her grandfather Aristide (Gino Picciano), an obscenely wealthy tycoon and diabetic who was poisoned when his insulin was replaced with clear liquid eye medication. The chief suspect is his young trophy wife Brenda (Christina Hendricks), a Vegas showgirl who's of course treated with disdain and scorn by his greedy heirs, all of whom stay at the gargantuan family mansion to form one of the most dysfunctional families in the Christie universe. There's Aristide's eldest son and Sophia's father Philip (Julian Sands) and his washed-up ham actress wife Magda (Gillian Anderson); their obnoxious teenage son Eustace (Preston Nyman) and already cynical young daughter Josephine (Honor Kneafsey); Aristide's pompous youngest son Roger (Christian McKay) and his wife Clemency (Amanda Abbington); and Lady Edith (Glenn Close), the spinster sister of Aristide's late first wife and the only remotely likable one of the bunch aside from the wise-beyond-her-years Josephine. Lady Edith knows the entire family is a scheming nest of vipers and tries to help Hayward in his investigation, which is eventually taken over by dogged Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Taverner (Terence Stamp), who decides Hayward's feelings for Sophia are compromising his ability to handle things on his own. Like THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM, another recent British period mystery, CROOKED HOUSE starts out clunky and uneven but gets much better as it goes along, especially once Taverner takes charge and puts his foot down with this family of assholes. The film gets a big boost from Stamp, who still can still command the screen and is a much more interesting actor than the bland Irons (the dreadful BITTER HARVEST), who's just not believable as a former spy and has a way to go before he's on the level of his dad Jeremy. CROOKED HOUSE admirably doesn't cushion the blow of its ending, but part of me wonders how astonishingly mean-spirited this would've been in the hands of Neil LaBute. As it is, the film stumbles a bit in its first half, with uninteresting flashbacks to Hayward's romance with Sophia in Cairo (who cares?), but once an attempt is made on young Josephine's life and Stamp's Taverner has had it with everyone, it turns into a reasonably solid film that's worth seeing. (PG-13, 115 mins)
(US/China/UK/Canada/Singapore - 2017)
Considering its $15 million budget and a couple of dubious-looking CGI explosions, BEYOND SKYLINE looks as convincingly "big" as any over-budgeted Hollywood blockbuster opening on 3000 screens. Once again, Grillo is a believably hard-as-nails tough guy hero and things get pretty good once RAID stars Uwais and Ruhian turn up midway through. Aside from needing to look at SKYLINE's Wikipedia page because I had no memory of the Elaine/Jarrod storyline, BEYOND SKYLINE pretty much works as a standalone film, and one that's surprisingly engaging considering how needlessly convoluted it is and how bad SKYLINE was (have you ever met a SKYLINE fan?). O'Donnell takes too long getting to them, but anything goes once Uwais and Ruhian are introduced, and when you add Grillo into the mix (which is interesting since Grillo was at one time attached to the still-unmade American remake of THE RAID), along with some unabashed, over-the-top R-rated violence, BEYOND SKYLINE becomes something SKYLINE never was: entertaining. (R, 106 mins)