The Killing Of A Sacred Deer
US (2017) Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
When you’re a filmmaker with a reputation for being obtusely idiosyncratic in your works and you achieve that breakthrough hit affording you wider recognition, do you temper your esoteric leanings to capitalise on this or go even weirder? If you’re Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos, you apparently go even weirder.
Taking as its foundation the ancient Greek play Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides, the story centres on heart surgeon Dr. Steven Murphy (Coin Farrell) and his perfect family, wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), son Bob (Sunny Suljic) and daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy). One day at the hospital a teen boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan) approaches Steven, acting familiar towards him because his mother was a former patient.
Martin inveigles invitations to Steven’s home ingratiating himself to the Murphy family. At first all is fine but Martin’s increased presence begins to vex Steven. When Bob suddenly loses the use of his legs, Martin confesses to Steven that he has cursed his family and to save them all from dying, Steven must choose one of them to kill.
In Euripides’ original play Agamemnon has to appease the goddess Artemis by sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia to allow the Greek army to fight against Troy. While reportedly disputed as the authentic original ending, it is revealed a deer was sacrificed in place of Iphigenia. Hopefully this helps explain the film’s ominous title and the cruelty of Steven’s moral dilemma, which Lanthimos directly references later on.
Should his previous film The Lobster be your first experience of Lanthimos, chances are you might be expecting Sacred Deer to be a quirky satirical black comedy in a similar vein – and you would be disappointed. If however Lanthimos’ back catalogue from before this is familiar to you, then you will be better equipped for the offbeat and challenging provocation presented here, not that this film any easier to digest for some of us.
Not since Alps has Lanthimos been this dense and unyielding in sharing his unique, askew vision with the audience which has won over some film fans but baffled plenty of others. Aside from the dialogue being in English and the return of Colin Farrell, there shouldn’t be any cause to make comparisons to The Lobster but a few are necessary.
For starters, everyone speaks in a stilted, exposition heavy manner as if their thoughts have been pre-approved and learned by rote, the same as in The Lobster, but that was set in a dystopian world where such behaviour was de rigueur. The unnamed location in this film appears very much to be in a regular modern society where this is completely unnatural yet conveniently ignored.
The first thirty minutes moves rather quickly, with the odd relationship between Steven and Martin developing in leaps and bounds with an unspoken bond forming that involves present giving and a tacit mutual understanding despite nothing making any clear sense. Steven’s position could be explained as a medical interest, suggesting Martin has serious psychological problems while Martin comes across as a creepy, needy interloper.
It is revealed that Steven knew Martin’s parents; his father died after a car accident and met Martin’s mother (Alicia Silverstone) as a result, a relationship Martin seems keen to rekindle despite seeing how tight Steven’s marriage to Anna is. Steven is prone to telling fibs about how he knows Martin and their meetings, even after Martin is introduced to the family as a potential friend for Bob and suitor for Kim.
Eventually the secrecy wears Anna down but Steven can only provide answers once Bob takes ill and Martin explains the situation – the paralysis from the waste down is the first stage of the curse he hexed the Murphy’s with, followed by refusal to eat then bleeding from the eyes, the last stage before death. It is never explained how Martin is able to apply this curse but his reason for doing so is finally exposed.
Lanthimos and regular co-writer Efthymis Filippou haven’t abandoned their penchant for bringing the absurd into modern life but the lack of obvious humour does make one wonder if they both harbour some sort of sociopathic tendencies in conjuring up such dark scenarios for their trenchant social commentary. Admittedly they can defer to the Greek tragedy they were inspired by, but I’m confident Euripides didn’t feature as many onanism references in his text as there are here.
At the risk of sounding reductive, my interpretation is that this is a tale about making choices and taking responsibility for them, as well being a psychological revenge thriller involving a heartbreaking sacrifice. For all its surreal leanings, this is an unnerving watch for the dilemma alone and the gradual suffering of the children, yet it is the abstract approach that suffuses each scene with an extra layer of eeriness.
This is most evident in the aforementioned robotic delivery of the dialogue. It actually suits Martin – a chilling turn from Irish actor Barry Keoghan – as the vengeful oddball but prevents the Murphy’s from being sympathetic; Nicole Kidman cuts an austere figure like a Stepford Wife on Prozac while Colin Farrell’s authoritarian smugness is off-putting. It is only by virtue of the illness and their suffering for the sins of their father that we feel for the kids but not before.
Running for 2 hours there is a clear case for some trimming of the fat here, the excising of the many extraneous scenes for more expedient storytelling would have made this a much more palatable watch, yet Lanthimos is a creative and intelligent director, capable of keeping his audience captivated long after the story has stopped making sense.
Staying true to his own distinctive paradigm Lanthimos delivers another film you’ll either get or you don’t. His works tend to be appreciated rather than enjoyed and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer is very much representative of that. Not his best or his worst film but it reaffirms Lanthimos as a vital voice in modern cinema.