The Killing of a Sacred Deer

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Yorgos Lanthimos is one of modern cinema’s most idiosyncratic auteurs. From his raw, subversive Greek films, Kinetta (2005), Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011) to his English-language debut The Lobster (2015) he’s shown a propensity for creating strange and disturbing alternate worlds within a vacuum. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of how his often-bizarre sensibilities are expressed cinematically is how he’s been able to translate the qualities that make the earlier films so unique into his two English language films without missing a beat. The work of so many foreign film directors becomes inevitably diluted and tainted once they venture outside their homelands but Lanthimos has remained resolutely aligned to a boldness of vision that he retains totally creative control over.

His new film The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) begins with a curious meeting between cardiologist Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) and a young man, Martin (Barry Keoghan), with whom he’s becomes friends though we’re not immediately sure of the context of their relationship. Steven lies about who Martin is to a colleague and doesn’t disclose their meetings to wife Anna (Nicole Kidman). Over time it becomes clear that Martin has some sort of hold over Steven and when their relationship doesn’t follow a route set out by the younger man, Steven’s life begins to fall apart, firstly with medical issues relating to his son Bob (Sunny Suljic) and later daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy).

There’s a wonderfully oblique element to Lanthimos and regular co-writer Efthymis Filippou’s narrative as it veers between mounting psychological horror and bursts of black humour that often border on the absurd. It’s this strange tonal juxtaposition that is so unique to Lanthimos and his magnificently skewered perception of the world. The horror is supplied by the unnerving sense of how Martin is able to ingratiate himself into the lives of Steven’s family and begin to exert a malevolent, almost supernatural will on events. Another arresting force is Lanthimos’s extraordinarily overt use of classical source music including, most prominently, ‘De Profundis’ by Janne Rattya which probes like a needle under a fingernail, reinforcing a premonition of horror to come through sound alone.

Lanthimos has a unique way of eliciting very specific performances from his actors in the way they complement the bleakness of his vision and enhance the peculiarities of his insulated worlds. Through his experience as lead actor in The Lobster, Colin Farrell has well and truly fallen into step with his director’s working methods and his performance as the increasingly frustrated Steven is a marvel of restraint, deadpanning and internalisation which rarely takes form in overt emotional outbursts. Though when it does, the results are memorable. Kidman is perhaps even better; her portrayal of Anna is one of immaculate control with her icy surface demeanour occasionally pierced by an emotional turmoil that seeps in at the edges. Still, Anna rarely allows any damage or distress to show other than in her remarkably expressive eyes.

So many of Lanthimos’s creative choices are strikingly memorable from the intriguing way he and regular cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis choose to shoot his characters, even in mundane scenarios such as doctors walking down hospital corridors, viewed either from forward or behind. Many of the distorting lenses or odd angles add to the effect of dislocation and peculiarity in what is a compelling but eerily emotionless version of the world. The resolution of events may be somewhat underwhelming, with a faint air of contrivance about it. Somehow, we’re bracing ourselves all along for something a little more extraordinary to unfold. But The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a masterfully executed provocation and excellent follow up to The Lobster. Regardless of the message it conveys or fails to convey through its tumbling, eerily emotionless revolutions, the film only cements Lathimos’s reputation as an artist with a truly unique perspective and one of world cinema’s most original voices.

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Good Time

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A gritty, ground-level drama that sees Robert Pattinson getting down and dirty in the seedy, ill-lit backstreets of New York, Good Time (2017) is Josh and Benny Safdie’s third feature and their finest work to date. Imbued with a retro aesthetic memorably related to the kind of films regularly produced during American cinemas greatest decade, the ‘70’s, Good Time oozes with misplaced criminal intent, hilariously dim-witted but crafty characters, and motives utterly bereft of reason. With its deliberately grainy, decoloured visuals, it comes across as being an update, of sorts, of films like Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) which epitomised the bravado, skill and innovation that filmmakers of that era so heartily embraced in their dangerous storytelling and compelled us to participate in as audience members.

At its centre is our doomed anti-hero, Connie Nikas (Pattinson), whose devotion to his mentally challenged brother Nick (Benny Safdie) sees him plunging heedlessly into a dangerous urban sprawl in order to survive. Connie may not be an especially sympathetic character but his ingenuity is admirable. He’s not especially bright either but what he possesses in spades are street smarts and an ability to pick himself up in the face of adversity and plough onwards, chances of success be damned. In a sense Connie is spinning his wheels from the outset as his bank heist goes horribly wrong mere moments afterwards as exploding dye forces he and Nick to run. His brother can’t keep up and is arrested. Later he gets in a brawl in a holding cell and is transported to hospital, thwarting Connie’s attempt to bail him with the financial aid of clingy older lover (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Logic plays a small part in Connie’s though processes; not for the first or last time, he decides upon a reckless course of action by surreptitiously entering the hospital to break out his brother who is under police guard. Things inevitably go to hell but Connie’s brazenness and ability to improvise in the face of danger make for sweat-fisted, compelling viewing. Pattinson is magnetic in the lead role, but he’s surrounded by a seamlessly blended ensemble. Safdie pulls off his few scenes as the dim but earnest brother with great conviction. Leigh savours her moments in a couple of juicy sequences as the harried, deluded Corey, whilst Peter Verby is also unnervingly good as Nick’s psychiatrist. Added to the mix are newcomer Taliah Webster as a young girl who befriends Connie after he’s let into the home of a West Indian grandmother and Buddy Duress as the annoyingly garrulous Ray, another crim caught in the middle of Connie’s nightmare under the most surprising circumstances.

The Safdie brothers have crafted an excellent, downbeat crime film on a minuscule budget. It may not appeal to all tastes but every raw, rough-round-the-edges aspect of this production is impressive. From the use of mostly natural light, intense close-ups, and roving hand-held camera, every creative choice heightens the retro aesthetic and stands in defiance of commercial considerations. These characters never feel or act or talk like constructs; they’re simple and inarticulate, driven by primal urges, compelled by sincerity and, often in the same breath, stupidity. From the film’s title card to the pounding, propulsive electronic score by Oneohtrix Point Never (Daniel Lopatin), there are constant reminders of another darker, more authentically rendered era. Good Time is an intoxicating, sleaze-laden throwback, a riveting odyssey into a black hole of despair and desperation that you can’t turn away from. It’s also another giant creative leap forward for all involved, especially the Safdies and the increasingly impressive Pattinson who, if he wasn’t legitimised through his work with David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis in 2012 and Maps to the Stars in 2014), David Michod (2014’s The Rover) and Werner Herzog (2015’s Queen of the Desert), certainly has been now.

American Honey

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As she did with Fish Task (2009), director Andrea Arnold has justifiably put her faith in a young, first time actress to encapsulate the despair, confusion and danger of a young woman escaping the world beyond her impoverished beginnings in American Honey (2016). Arnold, venturing to the U.S for the first time, has crafted a dazzling, mesmerising freeform road movie that sees a young woman, Star (Sasha Lane), living in poverty, being sexually abused and lumbered with two young children, before jumping at an opportunity to escape her life.

In her small Oklahoma town, Star spies a joker, a charismatic stranger, Jake (Shia LeBeouf), causing a stir in the parking lot of a supermarket. It’s a case of eyes meeting across a void and sensing a spark. The inevitable encounter leads to a proposition of work for Star from Jake who, with a ragtag, eclectic crew of ‘colleagues’, is heading to Kansas City the following day. Ditching her oppressive existence for the chance of a fresh start requires little deliberation and within she has dropped the young children with their natural mother and fled for the group’s hotel.

The next day, with little time to get a bearing on her new surroundings, Star is quickly indoctrinated into the fold of these magazine subscription sellers who must adopt any angle, cover story or other means of deception whilst doorknocking in affluent sections of cities to procure sales. The operation is the brainchild of Krystal (Riley Keough) who, running a tight ship whilst indulging in hedonistic activities on the side, tolerates nothing less than people who can genuinely earn their way. As the new blood, Star is assigned to Jake, Krystal’s personal assistant and top earner, for mentoring.

The chemistry between the two leads is genuine, setting off a strangely intuitive yet combative relationship that, frowned upon by Krystal, has a doomed inevitability about it. Both lead actors are nothing short of sensational. For LaBeouf this part is a gift, clearly the most interesting of his career, whilst Lane astonishes in her screen debut; she possesses an at times overwhelming physical presence and shines in many of the film’s finest sequences in which Star is seemingly placed in jeopardy as she assumes more individual responsibility for sales. Arnold’s has conceived some hypnotically terrifying moments, pregnant with dangerous possibilities and a palpable sense of Star’s vulnerability despite her bravado and willingness to take calculated risks.

Arnold continues to prove herself as a formidable talent. In the light of American Honey, her last film, a magnificent bleak skewering of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (2013) can be viewed as the next step of her radical evolution as a filmmaker unafraid of spiking convention, narrative form and visual grammar. One of the most remarkable aspects of this, her fourth feature, is her continuing collaboration with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, an equally fearless artist whose eye-popping immersion in Arnold’s world brings forceful scrutiny and a rare sense of authenticity. All the silliness, boredom-relieving silliness, idiocy, intensity and careless but genuine camaraderie shared between members of the group are captured with a purity that organically dissolves into captivating visual poetry.

American Honey is a dazzling, creatively daring film; it’s not only Arnold’s finest to date but one of the 2016’s most memorable and, sure to be, enduring cinematic achievements. Even at around 160 minutes it remarkably never feels overdrawn or bogged down in extraneous scenes for even a moment, and with a canny usage of source music, ends up creating a slew of scenes that will linger in mind for days after.

The Neon Demon

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‘Beauty eats itself’ might be the overarching maxim of Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest, an easily consumable, surreal, dreamlike but overly-mannered film sorely lacking in soul, insight or anything approximating skilled storytelling. A pretty young wannabe model Jesse (Elle Fanning) enters the fray, hoping to break-in to the fashion scene in what appears to be an eerily-empty, hollowed out version of L.A. Her youth and inexperience are soon overlooked in favour of her striking looks. She becomes the flavour of the month but in what is a brutally competitive field full of vindictive vixens looking to climb the ladder to fame and success – blood on their hands be damned – Jesse will have to watch her back is she hopes to maintain her place in the pecking order.

It’s almost impossible to believe this Refn screenplay was penned in collaborations with two playwrights – Mary Laws and Polly Stenham – whose currency, you’d imagine, is skilled verbal interaction. Yet there’s precious little evidence of subtlety or perceptiveness here. Hell, even a moment in the film not marred by stilted, usually absurd dialogue would have been appreciated. Certainly on a metaphorical level you can extract some socially relevant commentary about the cruelly disposable, interchangeable nature of beauty, but the message is hollow and futile when saturated by mediocre, sub-Argento stylings that leave you cold.

Refn is, and will always be a favourite director, but his two films since the masterful Drive (2011) have formed what may be the start of a regrettable, inevitable devolution, where his ever-expanding obsession with style curation has utterly stifled any possibility of simultaneously creating something of real substance. The film is, of course, glorious to behold from a visual standpoint, as any Refn film is, thanks on this occasion to a first-time collaborator, cinematographer Natasha Braier. Aesthetically intoxicating, there are moments of brilliance in the off-putting, disorienting way he distorts, eliminates, extracts or plays with colour and light, whilst Cliff Martinez’s amped-up retro score works to brilliant effect in certain scenes, often obscuring their vacuousness.

Fanning is far and away the best thing about The Neon Demon (2016). Jesse’s vulnerabilities and naivety are laid bare early on, exposing her to all sorts of exploitation. Yet her assimilation into this world and transformation into a hardened competitor in the fashion stakes is entirely credible despite being surrounded by increasingly weird goings-on and some truly putrid acting. Australian contributors Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee as Jesse’s combatants Gigi and Sarah are just diabolically awful – two of the most wooden, dire performances of recent times. Dexter alumni Desmond Harrington also has a couple of hilariously awful scenes as a farcically intense, almost non-verbal hotshot photographer. Marlon Brando, he’s not. Even the usually reliable Jena Malone as the make-up artist of dubious intent who takes Jesse under her wing feels weirdly out-of-sync in nearly every scene she’s in, including the film’s most embarrassingly awful in which she spends time alone with a corpse.

An overwhelming sense of extraneousness is what ultimately sinks The Neon Demon. Ah, the agony of sitting through so many poorly written, utterly pointless scenes, including every one featuring Keanu Reeves, for starters. This disjointed film sorely lacks cohesion, whilst individual scenes never feel part of a narrative flow, making it a frustrating viewing experience. Those imagining a shrewd illumination of the film’s themes at the end of proceedings will be sorely disappointed. If anything, the final few scenes only exemplify the film’s ill-discipline and asinine, juvenile approach to narrative and, especially, to horror. Subverting social commentary beneath shimmering layer after layer of dizzying, rancid obliqueness does not render it in any way profound. In this case, the notion of creative depth is the very last one to come to mind. The Neon Demon, forgetting its most obvious shortcomings, has enough moments of flickering visual brilliance to make it semi-watchable, but this is, depressingly, but a miniscule step up from Refn’s career low, Only God Forgives.

 

On a side note, here is a film worth seeing in conjunction with this or any other Refn film:

Directed by his wife Liv Corfixen, My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2014) offers a fascinating insight into the creative processes of the director and the mental anguish that seemingly plagues him with some regularity. It’s basically a behind-the-scenes documentary shot during the production of Only God Forgives (2013) and shows Refn often overly burdened and struggling to come to terms with his day-to-day ordeals. His evaluation of the film ebbs and flows to dangerous degrees as he drifts, often, way too close to the heart of his screenplay, thus eliminating all objectivity in a search for solutions throughout the shoot. In post-production he basically deems the finished product worthless, something nearly every creative person must live with upon completion of a piece. A self-indulgent yet fascinating film; ultimately an acquired taste but essential viewing for Refn aficionados.

 

High-Rise

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J.G. Ballard’s seminal work, published in 1978, has long sat alongside a slew of equally influential novels that, upon first release, were deemed ‘unfilmable’. Prime examples include William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The former, a flawed curiosity piece, was shot in 1991 by David Cronenberg; the latter by Terry Gilliam without a shred of lucidity to keep it on the rails. Even Ballard’s own Crash fell into a similar category; again it was Cronenberg who finally took a shot at this ‘difficult’ novel, producing a fascinating but divisive mini-masterpiece of perversion in 1996. High-Rise has long remained in formidable defiance of adaptation attempts however the time has finally arrived. It’s now been audaciously brought to life by one of modern British cinema’s brightest lights, Ben Wheatley, and his partner and regular screenwriter Amy Jump.

The early scenes of High-Rise (2016) are curiously off-putting and alienating, immersing us in a weird retro world with a colour scheme and production design that draw attention to themselves in unfortunate ways. Wheatley and his cinematographer Laurie Rose find interesting ways to negotiate us through the maze of this scaled-down, closed-off society in miniature but it takes half an hour before we’ve come to grips with the off-kilter aesthetics. Initially, the world contained within the high rise is very much commensurate with the pristine, idealistic conception of its creator Royal (Jeremy Irons) who inhabits a floor on his own, replete with full-scale garden and other outlandish features. But human nature has a horrifying way of insinuating itself into any perfect design and before long tiny indicators of trouble begin to emerge, the first cracks developing into monstrous apertures that leave no room for repair.

Anyone familiar with High-Rise will know that it’s notorious for detailing the grotesque devolution of our species, of stripping back – with acidic fervour – the veneer that separates humankind and our civilised façade with our baser instinct which, as Ballard posits, given a chance to sniff the air and investigate, will almost certainly run amok. The world into which Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is deposited has a self-contained, hyper-reality to it; the world beyond only appears, tangentially, like a mirage hovering on the horizon, removed and coldly distant.

Ballard’s story sounds a bleak and dire warning for our race; in providing a stark and defining metaphor for our propensity for a rapid descent into savagery, he only hints at emotional vestiges underlining the contamination beyond a generalised anger and outrage at the inequality of this mini-society’s striations. The excellent Hiddleston proves to be the most accurate approximation of Laing you could imagine; there’s nothing particularly sympathetic about the man, but then he was never intended to be anything but a contextualising presence. In essence he serves as the primary witness and eyes of the audience. As we’re greeted to the subversion of order, cordiality and civility, they bottom out and begin feeding the savage, autonomous tendrils that swarm and submerge the high-rise into a primitively recast system of privilege and attainment.

The many supporting roles are all superbly cast, with Luke Evans especially effective as Wilder, one of the devolution’s chief catalysts, an outsider whose quest for visceral thrills denied him by the respectability and civility of the high-rise are key to kick-starting the crossing of the line into barbarity. Sienna Miller, Elizabeth Moss, James Purefoy and Peter Ferdinando are other standouts though Wheatley has assembled a genuinely flawless ensemble. Special mention should also be made of Clint Mansell’s mesmerising score which ranks amongst his very finest, perhaps even topping his work for Darren Aronofsky in the way it intelligently and intuitively taps into the darkly evolving psychological aspects of the high rise’s inhabitants and their gratuitous capitulation to disorder as the new order.

Almost out of necessity to serve the story’s essential truthfulness, the film provides a provocative spectacle, though the ugliness and contemptuousness of the increasingly outrageous violence will become unpalatable and too hard to stomach for many. However, for much of its length I revelled in the faithfulness of Wheatley’s vision and if it does drag on, even to repetitive excess, it’s ultimately a minor failing of what is a creatively daring attempt to cinematically render a story that has lost neither its appeal nor social relevance.