If you haven’t: see it, because whatever its shortcomings, it ain’t boring and it ain’t predictable. Unless you have seen several other films by Lanthimos in which case it might be (I’ve only seen The Lobster; more below on his ‘characteristic style’ as discerned from two films and reading reviews of the others). It is disturbing and might leave you suffering from a nameless malaise, though.
If you have (spoilers):
Here is the plot of Killing. Steven (Colin Farrell, bushy-bearded and a bit pudgy) is a cardiologist and married to Anna (Nicole Kidman, sleek and not at all pudgy, as is the way of things), an opththamologist. They live in a nice home and have two nice children, pre-teen Bob and teenage Kim. Steven meets regularly with the teenage Martin (Barry Keoghan), whose father died two years previous while Steven was operating on him for a heart condition, possibly as a consequence of the fact that Steven had been drinking, but just as possibly due to other, uncontrollable factors. Martin, who at the beginning is weird and polite, gets weirder and less polite, more insistent about insinuating himself into Steven’s life–including pursuing an erotic relationship with Kim–until eventually he reveals to Steven that he will have revenge, or “justice”: Steven must kill one of his family members or else all three of them–wife and both children–will get sick and die. Both kids soon fall paralyzed and anorexic and Steven and his wife agonize for a while, also kidnap and torture Martin, to no avail. When Bob is on death’s door, Steven plays a version of Russian roulette to choose which family member to shoot; it turns out to be Bob. Kim recovers and life goes on.
Those who saw The Lobster will recognize Lanthimos’s distinctive, perhaps unique, style, which comes through both in the screenplay (which he co-wrote) and the highly mannered acting. The characters act as if they are missing something that normal human beings have, call it ’emotions’ or ‘a soul.’ Or at least human emotions, a human soul. They seem a bit like aliens or creations of an inept demigod in a gnostic world, who are trying to pass as human but don’t quite have the knack and have learned what it means to be human by watching bad television.
Much of the humor and bite of these two films comes from the satirical power of this. Some exchanges are mind-numbingly conventional, except spelled out in a way they rarely are in ordinary conversation–for instance, Steven and his colleague Michael compare their watch bands and Steven says, in formal and complete sentences, how he would like a new one like Michael’s; Michael says that the store owner is a former patient of his and he could almost certainly get Steven a discount.
In others the humor lies in the characters saying or doing things without the usual social or moral filter. Someone asks Steven how the family is; he reports that his daughter has just started menstruating. He asks the school principal which of his children the principal prefers in order to help him decide which to kill. Crucial to this motif is that no one reacts as if Steven has said anything untoward. (The principal hesitates but only, it appears, because he can’t decide either.)
These seem like opposites (over-conventionality vs. departure from conventional mores) but the continuity is illuminating–both highlight the extreme subtlety and sometimes arbitrariness of the rules by which we ordinarily live, such that someone who didn’t have a deep internalized “feel” for them could easily get it wrong one way or another.
In all cases what is lacking is any kind of libidinal investment or ordinary emotional reaction. It’s not that the characters don’t want things, or sometimes go to great lengths to get them. But their wanting seems “put on,” somehow. Not faked–the characters think that their desires are indeed theirs–but it seems rather that they want these things because they are the things that the stories say human beings want–all their desires are “mimetic desires,” in Rene Girard’s phrase (as, for Girard, all desires are), a matter of imitation rather than coming from some deep source. (Some animal instincts survive–self-preservation, but not social instincts like love or attachment. Kim “running away” for her life, dragging her inert legs.)
In the hands of a different–a less, shall we say, idiosyncratic–director, this would have been a very different movie. The question is whether it would have been a better one. The main difference, I think, is that we would have been made to identify with the characters–with Steven in the awfulness of the choice he must make, with Anna and the children in their fear and anguish, even with Martin in his wounded aggrievement over the loss of his father and his desire for “justice.” As it is, we may feel pain or dread at the horrific situation, but the characters never quite become people that we care about or feel to be fully real. Nor, I think, can we quite take the situation seriously as a moral quandary–it just feels absurd. My question after watching the film was whether Lanthimos’s style of detachment works with the story or against it.