The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Studio: A24
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Oct 20, 2017 Web Exclusive
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The Killing of a Sacred Deer - the second English-language feature by Greek writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos - begins with a slow-motion close-up of open-heart surgery set to the sounds of a soaring opera. It’s an appropriate introduction to the brand Lanthimos has built for himself: gruesome and uncomfortable, while also over-the-top and vaguely ridiculous. His newest film further refines this aesthetic but potentially pushes it past the point of any discernible purpose.

Lanthimos’s English-language debut, The Lobster, was a bizarre and often hilarious exercise in magical realism, set in a world where failure to find love at an highly regulated singles resort results in people being transformed into various animals. The Killing of a Sacred Deer traffics in a similar currency of the strange; part psychological thriller, part morality fable. Steven Murphy is a renowned heart surgeon living the idyllic American dream. His beautiful wife Anna is herself a doctor and their children, Kim and Bob, are bright, dutiful and well-behaved. Their collective bliss begins to unravel when Steven’s paternal relationship with Martin, an odd teenager of uncertain origins, results a series of disturbing and inexplicable events.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer lacks the high-concept hook that makes The Lobster so easy to discuss. The new film plays its cards closer to the vest and discussion of anything beyond the first act will likely constitute spoilers. Some basic similarities become obvious at first glance: the casting of Colin Farrell as an paunchy, hirsute man of indeterminate middle-age. The tendency of everyone to speak in rushed, precise over-explanations, as though they’re all pod people trying too hard to be human. The latter choice, mined to great comedic effect in The Lobster, becomes a bit problematic given the narrative set-up of The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Sure, it’s still amusing to hear characters discuss awkward sexual specifics and other disturbing topics as though they’re reading from a technical manual, but it ends up muting the impact of many of the more disturbing developments when this ostensibly normal family already seems so stilted and bizarre. The tonal uniformity of the performances is a spectacular high wire act pulled off by both Lanthimos and his cast, but the purpose of visiting horror and tragedy upon a family that reacts to these events with the same emotional register that they react to everyday life remains elusive and somewhat frustrating.

That’s not to say there isn’t a great deal of specificity and skill to be found in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Lanthimos once again makes excellent and off-beat use of Farrell’s facility with bizarre, child-like wonder. The sound design - from the same team that worked on Under the Skin - is memorably unnerving,  variously evoking tea kettles boiling, thunder crashing and someone drunkenly falling into a piano. The biggest surprise comes in the form of Barry Keoghan, the young actor playing Martin. Coming off a crucial role in this summer’s Dunkirk, Keoghan gives a performance worthy of Best Supporting Actor consideration, or at least would if this were a film that had any chance of being on the Academy’s radar. Projecting an energy that’s both clinical and disturbingly intimate, Keoghan is perfectly keyed into the otherworldly tone of the film and holds his own against heavyweights like Farrell and Nicole Kidman. He is successful in clearing the artificially high bar the film has for off-putting behavior, in a way that gives the film an understandable narrative thrust but still leaves it feeling adrift and mysterious once the credits roll. There’s nothing inherently wrong with ambiguous endings or obscure motivations in art, but film’s ultimate moral question seems to suggest a purpose that is clearer than the one the film presents.

Author rating: 6.5/10

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Average reader rating: 9/10


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