The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Steven, a charismatic surgeon, is forced to make an unthinkable sacrifice after his life starts to fall apart, when the behavior of a teenage boy he has taken under his wing turns sinister.
While not as blatantly Biblical or flashy as the latter, The Killing of a Sacred Deer certainly offers up plenty of symbolism (Biblical and not) and has its own unique visual style and fascinating foray into storytelling.
Just like Mother!, I think many folks will take issue with The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It’s slow-moving (but absolutely mesmerizing) art-house thriller fare. In other words, it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.
Heart surgeon Steven (Colin Farrell) and his opthamologist wife Anna (Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman) have two children – teenaged Kim (Raffey Cassidy of Snow White and the Hunstman) and Bob (Sunny Suljic, of Eli Roth’s forthcoming film, The House with a Clock in its Walls). Steven has befriended a 16-year old boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan of Dunkirk) after Martin’s father died. It’s a strange relationship, but Steven feels obligated to the boy for some reason (no spoilers here). As Martin worms his way into Steven’s life and family, much more will be revealed… including the reason why Steven’s two children suddenly become seriously ill.
As much as the film (and its title) owes to Euripides (it’s based on the Ancient Greek tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis) it also owes a huge debt of gratitude to Kubrick’s The Shining. There are so many camera tricks and so many music cues reminiscent of that Jack Nicholson vehicle – one can’t simply ignore them. There are plenty of classical pieces present in the soundtrack (like The Shining) and in the rest of the score, there are screeches and the building rumble of timpani (like The Shining). But the following of characters down long corridors, from a high vantage point – will automatically remind you of Wendy and Danny Torrance getting lost in that legendary hedge-maze (and in the Overlook). And finally, don’t tell me that young Sunny Suljic doesn’t look a heckuva lot like little Danny Lloyd as the youngest member of the Torrance family. There’s definitely a lot of love being sent to that 1980 horror classic here.
How this film was able to sneak past all of the big awards season voters, I’ll never know. A mystery for the ages, I guess. If I had my druthers, I’d have nominated it for Best Lead Actor for Farrell, Best Lead Actress for Kidman and Best Supporting Actor for Keoghan. Add into that a nomination for Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography, and perhaps I could have been appeased.
But what do I know? The film did, however, win Best Screenplay at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and Best Film at Sitges– at least someone was paying attention (where you at Oscar?).
Something which stood out to me as absolutely unique and creepy, was the odd, stilted dialogue. So much of the script was asking questions or making statements, before actually getting to the point. Add onto that the basically emotionless, monotone delivery of the majority of the actors’ lines, and you’ll be immediately on edge. And strange exchanges involving masturbation, menstruation and male body hair – will not only shock with their frankness, but delight you in their boldness.
Alicia Silverstone (Clueless) has a small role as Martin’s mother – in what can only be described as the film’s most awkward scene. Martin has invited Steven to dinner at his home, and while everything about this scenario is weird, they then sit down to watch Groundhog Day (yes, the Bill Murray film). In an endless parade of uncomfortable moments between characters, this short sequence gets the top prize.
All of that being said, I love how fidgety this film makes me feel. How this film makes you squirm is a prime example of masterful manipulation by writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou – who worked together previously on The Lobster.
There are religious symbols throughout – the kissing of a character’s feet, the notion of “an eye for an eye” and other such telling details. But like Mother!, not everything is neatly wrapped up in a fancy bit of explanation at the film’s conclusion. I have my suspicions, but will leave that for a face to face discussion. In other words, no spoilers here.
Performance-wise, this entire cast “gets it”. Clearly Lanthimos set out to make a very stylized way of telling a story, which includes that aforementioned heightened language. It’s almost a choice to make the characters feel robotic – or perhaps a better word choice – socio-pathic and unfeeling.
I’m impressed when a film director can get the cool, “ice-queen” quality which Kidman has obviously mastered (think The Others and Birth). It’s a simple look from Kidman, or – as in Birth – a particularly lengthy shot of just Kidman’s face reacting to something off-camera. No one is able to show off the internal thinking of a character – with no dialogue – like Kidman. Case in point here – the spaghetti sequence at Martin’s home. Martin speaks off camera and Kidman listens — and that’s what we’re watching… and dammit if that’s not completely engaging. Lanthimos knows Kidman’s strengths and he wisely exploits them.
I’ve honestly not seen a great deal of Farrell’s work, but I’d go out on a limb and say that this is the best thing I’ve seen him do (again – take that with a grain of salt). But regardless of my limited Farrell education – you can’t deny the great performance present here. One of the things which so moved me about his work – was his constant sense of paranoia. Every time he’s with Martin – watch Farrell’s eyes. There’s this weird underlying sense that Steven’s doing something wrong – what does this look like to outside eyes? Farrell instills Steven with that never-ending sense that he might be caught, or that the optics of this situation are wrong – which all leads back to Steven’s immense sense of guilt. It’s a very memorable performance from Farrell.
But stealing the show is Keoghan as Martin. Again, I can’t say too much, but from the get-go, you’ll feel weirdly sorry for this kid, while you’re also terrified by his awkwardness, his weirdness and his hollow emotions. And while all of the actors understand this film’s need for specific dialogue delivery, Keoghan excels at it. This kid is messed-up for so many reasons and you’ll certainly sympathize with his problems – but man – when he speaks with no emotion (which is all the time), the creep-out factor is through the roof!
Strong performances, amazing cinematography and one the most genuinely unsettling movie worlds (with the bizarre atmosphere to match) in ages, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is practically perfect in every way.
In fact, as I wrap up this article, I can’t really find any fault – and it does have the magical (transcendental) quality I so often search for in a film – which means… we’ve just been granted that rare entry in to “perfect score-land”.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is now available on DVD/Bluray and VOD. A winner all the way around and an absolute must-see!