The thrillers of 2017 are a grisly lot, featuring a raft of deadly and deadbeat dads. The maligned or merely misunderstood Mother! blew a few minds before skittering off with its high-toned tail between its legs, yet It still lurks in the cultural periphery, overshadowing the wretched serial killer murk of The Snowman.
Meanwhile, the batty Lodge family are being terrorized in the Clooney and Coen Brothers collaboration Suburbicon (★★★★), and filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos has unleashed even bleaker horrors upon the unfortunate Murphy family in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (★★★). In the words of the internet bard: hide your wife, hide your kids, hide your husband, they’re shooting everybody out here. No one is safe, especially those most vulnerable.
Consistently, each of the aforementioned films pinpoints a dastardly father figure as a source of evil, hatred, or pain within the home. There must be something in the air lending potency to these paranoid tales of abusive patriarchs who would sacrifice their progeny to protect themselves.
In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) might be the target under attack, but it’s his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), and adolescent children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic), who are bound to suffer. Privileged to sit safely on the sidelines of battle, Steven attempts to negotiate some rapprochement with a highly motivated enemy, while his young flesh and blood endure injury and torture on the front lines.
The good doctor has developed a dangerously close friendship with a fatherless teen, Martin (Barry Keoghan), who’s decided he wants to punish Steven for something. And by punish, Martin means to force Steven to choose which member of his beloved family — Anna, Kim, or Bob — will be subject to Martin’s four-step plan for revenge.
“What a charming boy,” Anna remarks after meeting her husband’s mysterious new acquaintance. She might be joking, in addition to being woefully uninformed. Definitely Lanthimos is having his fun, since Martin, as conceived in the script co-written with Efthymis Filippou (The Lobster), is about as charming as a zombie Norman Bates, only far more self-assured.
Keoghan, a standout good guy in Dunkirk, exudes the wily intelligence of a troubled mind, and some measure of bad-boy confidence. But Martin’s single-minded obsession with Steven and his family is never anything other than pathological.
Lanthimos amplifies the boy’s creepy demeanor by coaxing from Keoghan and the entire cast a bone-dry, monotone delivery that’s either an acquired taste, or just plain ridiculous. If the deader than deadpan line readings are better viewed as a conceptual game than as a compelling acting exercise, then Farrell at least wins points for a surgically precise performance that’s dynamic in its flatness.
Steven somehow registers as a brilliant surgeon and a sad victim of his own hubris, a caring provider and an oblivious prick who deserves every bit of pain that’s inflicted upon him. But Anna, Kim, and Bob don’t deserve to suffer for the sins of this father. Therein lies the cruelty of Martin’s vengeful plan, and in the film’s rather sadistic treatment of the Murphy children.
They and Anna are just pawns in the war between Steven and his stalker. Despite a vivid turn from Kidman, the underwritten Anna exerts little force in the story, or as a guardian of her children’s safety.
Rather than resist their fate, the Murphys slide inexorably towards their doom in unconvincing fashion. Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis’ evocative tracking shots grease the momentum, and Jade Healy’s production design is elegant and spooky, but the tone is uncannily cold, even flippant, for a film encompassing religion, redemption, revenge, and torture.
The joke, whether it’s on the audience, on Steven’s bourgeois family, or on poor Martin, desperately looking for paternal love in all the wrong places, is not sufficiently amusing.
Suburbicon, on the other hand, plies its murder and gore with poignancy and panache. Further advancing this season’s macabre trend of thrillers depicting shocking domestic violence, this dark number dallies in matters of religion, real estate, revenge, torture, and race — and manages to make it all witty and insightful.
Leave it to screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen, along with director George Clooney, to pull off socio-political, Hitchcockian suspense that’s nearly as fun as Fargo. Concerned with the conspicuous integration of an all-white suburban enclave in 1959, Clooney’s nifty period piece depicts all hell breaking loose in a subdivision of Suburbicon, USA, when the Myers family, who are black, move onto the block.
Wide-eyed kid Nicky Lodge (Noah Jupe), whose family’s backyard shares a fence with the Myers’, has a front-row seat for the brewing turmoil as his African-American neighbors are harassed by mobs of belligerent citizens. Nicky witnesses a campaign of racist attacks take shape, led by the town’s good Christian men, who gather outside the Myers home at night to disturb the family’s sleep by shouting hymns.
Nicky is too young to fully grasp the hypocrisy, but he does have a nose for falsehood. Despite a world of distraction outside his door, he picks up on some odd goings on inside the home he shares with his stern father, Gardiner (Matt Damon), his wheelchair-bound mother, Rose, and her identical twin, Margaret (both played by Julianne Moore). After a terrifying home invasion shatters the Lodge family and leaves Gardiner more and more unhinged, Nicky begins to piece together a nefarious plot that poses a greater threat to his life than the racial hostility that’s dividing the town.
In an all-around stellar performance, Jupe makes middle schooler Nicky a clever, indomitable foe for every villain who comes for him. And he and Damon enact a delicate dance between devotion and distrust that grounds this gruesome, outlandish caper in an authentic father-son feeling. For the most part, Clooney shoots for a genuine rather than farcical rendering of the Coens’ story, and it works. The tone is arch and playful, or savage and scary, but never too far detached from the emotion.
Moreso than Murphy in Sacred Deer, this dad puts some skin in the game. A grim parental figure, Gardiner Lodge is snarky and selfish and mean, but he gets beaten and battered along with his family. Glaring past a pair of broken specs, Matt Damon hasn’t been this good since his talented Mr. Ripley lied and murdered his way across Europe. Maybe it’s the glasses.
Even the mighty Moore playing twins can barely steal focus from Damon’s simmering intensity. Oscar Isaac, another Coen alum, steals a few scenes as an uber-efficient claims adjuster with a knowing spring in his step. The film itself projects the same bouncy confidence as Isaac’s character. That sprightly buzz helps sell the serious (and seriously funny) commentary — such as the recurring joke that the townspeople blame the Myers family for stirring up all this racist hatred and violence. It seems we’ve heard that one somewhere before.
Strikingly, one dad keeps a cool head throughout the escalating chaos that overtakes Suburbicon: Mr. Myers (Leith M. Burke), a slim, poised black man, who utters barely a word, as he boldly walks the walk of peaceful resistance against relentless hostility. He’s the dad all the other dads in the neighborhood should be looking to as a role model, if only they weren’t so busy marching in lockstep behind ignorant, loudmouthed rabble-rousers.
Suburbicon is rated R, and opens in theaters everywhere on Friday, October 27. Visit fandango.com.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is rated R, and is currently playing in theaters everywhere. Visit fandango.com.
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