Tag Archives: Dunkirk

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017): Threats, Mistakes, and Inexplicable Illness

Yorgos Lanthimos is not a normal person. His debut film, Dogtooth, centered on a family whose children were brainwashed into believing cats were vicious predators and that the outside world was uninhabitable. His most recent movie, The Lobster, was about a man sent to a facility where he had to find a partner or else he would be turned into an animal. As strange as they may sound, each of his films is centered on a high concept. His first was about societal norms, The Lobster was about the overlooked ridiculousness of courtship, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer is about trust during a family crisis. Steven (Colin Firth; The Lobster) is a heart surgeon who spends time with Martin (Barry Keoghan; Dunkirk), the 16-year old son of a man that died during an operation. After Martin meets Steven’s family, he decides Steven must pay for the death of his father. He claims a series of illnesses will strike Steven’s wife Anna (Nicole Kidman; Lion) and their son and daughter unless Steven makes an impossible choice.

Lanthimos continues the style seen in The Lobster but with a thriller twist. Characters still speak in the same monotone with a deliberately anti-naturalist cadence. This can still lead to laughter at the sheer morbidity flowing from each deadpan delivery. Martin’s threats are spoken like a reading from a number from a phonebook, slow, clear, and punctuated. He becomes a dangerous presence despite his size. He makes no physical aggressions and maintains a withdrawn posture. He seems resigned to the fate of Stevens family, not excited by it, and is completely stoic, often trying to present logical reasoning for why they must suffer. Keoghan, an Irish actor, maintains complete control of his body language and takes Martin from a potential red flag to an enigma of potentially sadistic capability.

The camera’s distance emphasizes the insignificance of the characters.

The film’s world feels sterile and foreboding. Lanthimos tracks his characters like Kubrick in the famous tricycle scene from The Shining but places his camera at a curiously elevated height with wide angle lenses. The camera, perched near the ceiling, looms over its subjects, making them tiny figures in a pristine, but cold and empty world. The hallways of Steven’s hospital are cavernous with rooms that dwarf the staff and patients. Lanthimos adds to this atmosphere with his use of music. The soundtrack uses heavy groans from a piano and violin screeches. Everything in the production hints at the ominous nature of the events to come.

The genre of the film is as inexplicable as its narrative. It features laugh out loud moments as characters bluntly and dryly describe their situation, flashes of body horror, but, more than anything, a creeping paranoia. Like with the family from last year’s The Witch, when the kids suddenly fall ill, distrust begins to grow. What is happening and how? What are they willing to do to stop it? Farrell and Kidman’s relationship goes from loving, or at least whatever loving means in a Lanthimos film, to jagged and explosive. There are no clear answers about on what is going on and what should happen next. Instead, their suspicion breeds desperation as we witness how quickly – and violently – a family unit can be upended by an outside force.

4/5 stars.

Dunkirk (2017): A Well Crafted, but Forgettable Ride

In his first historical film, director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) brings his talents to recreating the Dunkirk evacuation, where over 300,000 Allied troops, surrounded by Germans, were saved by hundreds of private boats that crossed the English Channel to rescue their soldiers. Rather than work with a linear story, Nolan splits the film’s focus into three separate viewpoints: soldiers on the beach awaiting help, a civilian (Mark Rylance; Bridge of Spies) and his son taking their personal boat to assist in the evacuation, and a fighter pilot (Tom Hardy; Mad Max: Fury Road) providing cover to the trapped soldiers.

Nolan’s strength as a writer has always been structure. Films like Memento and Inception, exploited their setup for suspense and the same happens here. The characters may be in different locations, but any building intensity is meant to be shared between them. Working with his regular composer, Hans Zimmer, he uses an ever-accelerating ticking clock as a metronome for the film’s tension and audio bridge between the perspectives. As the film cuts between each set of characters, the danger they face is carried forward and builds with mostly fruitful results. There is an overreliance on raw decibel power to create a feeling of intensity, similar to the sound mixing in Interstellar, that is not as effective as desired, but the film succeeds in making each disparate scenario equally precarious.

In the past, Nolan’s greatest weakness has been exposition. Needless, forced exposition that talks down to the audience as if the director’s greatest fear is that the masses will not be able to keep up with his intelligence even though his films, despite their often deliberately convoluted structure, are fairly followable. In Dunkirk, he breaks away from his tendency to overexplain. The film features little dialogue, instead relying on images of warfare to propel the story. With a few exceptions, namely Rylance’s seemingly sedated performance, he refrains from undue exposition.

The scale of the action is the film’s greatest triumph.

The lack of exposition also extends into character development. These are people whose names you will not know, even during the course of the movie. Perhaps this is a willful commentary on the war itself, claiming that the characters have little individual identity because they are each one of many who experienced the same trauma in WWII, but that does nothing to connect the audience to them. For all of Nolan’s immense technical skills, emotions have always been a major shortcoming. Even the basic plot of many of his films can be reduced to men whose lives are disrupted by engaging with emotions. The missing attachment to the characters makes the film more appreciable for its technique rather than its heart.

Dunkirk is an amusement ride. That isn’t necessarily a criticism, but it does accurately depict the film’s effect. The characters and actual plot are either simple or deliberately downplayed. Instead, we are meant to take in the expertly realized period and effects in the moment. Nolan and his team have recreated the incredible scale of this moment in history. Countless troops appear to line the beaches without any suspicion of computer generated assistance. He continues his love of practical stunts by using multiple real Spitfire fighter jets and the same wing-side camera shots from the famous docking scene of Interstellar. While enjoyable, the emphasis on historical accuracy over feeling has the unintended consequence of making the film forgettable. Like even great rollercoasters, it entertains during its runtime then fades away as soon as the ride ends. Dunkirk is well-crafted experience, just not a particularly emotional or memorable one.

3/5 stars.