The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
This film proved to be the most divisive at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and there was a good reason for the audience and critics to feel so confused and uncertain. “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is a product of Yorgos Lanthimos, the director who is making his name as a master of original, unsettling and thought-provoking films; the director who is already an expert in crafting awe-inspiring settings which as much provoke as they disturb, and which the more mainstream audience could hardly even fathom. In “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”, a well-to-do surgeon (Colin Farrell) strikes an unlikely friendship with a fatherless boy, without even realising the possible negative consequences of their ever-closer union. A seemingly mundane plot here slowly transpires into something unimaginable, and with the excellent support from Nicole Kidman, and with impressive Barry Keoghan and Raffey Cassidy, this film becomes an almost brilliant interplay of the unusual, the menacing and the astonishing, while being totally effective throughout.
“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” could be said to be made in the same universe as the director’s other films, but here, the danger and threat are more subdued, almost unnoticed, and it is this setting of seeming normality (which then turns out to be anything but normal), which shocks, apprehends and awes the most. In fact, the first amazement comes during the opening scenes, when all we see are the close-up shots of a heart surgery in progress: a human heart with its veins, passages, valves, not the most pleasing of shots to see, but it also describes the essence of this film: the naked truth being slowly unveiled and pushed to light, no matter how uncomfortable the audience may feel about the exposure.
The inroads which the boy, Martin, makes into Steven (Farrell)’s family are innocent enough. Apart from meeting regularly with Steven, Martin comes to visit Steven at home, and meets Steven’s wife Anna, and their children Kim and Bob. Kim, who is also a classmate of Martin, is particularly taken by the newcomer and the duo start to develop a bond. The genius of Lanthimos here (as also of Efthymis Filippou, the co-script writer) is that the events we see on the screen could not be described as anything, but relatively normal, but they also have touches of complete abnormality about them, be it through some random and unsettling dialogue, through unexpected glances of the characters, or through some unexpectedly eerie music. Martin, as his relationship with Steven, is odd, but nothing to be alarmed about, until we start to find out more about Martin’s family, and the shift is made from Steven to his closest family members: his children and their well-being.
Despite similarities in style and vision, most of its time, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” reminds more of Lanthimos’ previous two films “Alps” (2001) and “Dogtooth” (2009), rather than of the more well-known “The Lobster” (2015). As “Dogtooth”, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is about absurdity and creepiness inside the family setting. Steven may appear logical, sensible and devoted to his family, but his behaviour in bed with his wife is puzzling; his comments can completely catch people off their guard (for example, when he comments on his daughter starting her period during an official party); and his devotion to his family is becoming questionable as his relationship with Martin intensifies.
Colin Farrell employs brilliantly the same acting technique here as the one he used in “The Lobster”, delivering his lines in the same semi-automatic, rigid fashion, contributing to making the film particularly Lanthimosque. Nicole Kidman, as Steven’s wife, is excellent, and is Raffey Cassidy who plays Steven’s daughter, Kim. As Martin’s influence grows on the family, it is Kim who becomes the one totally taken by the stranger, and the horror of Steven’s situation is that one’s beloved family member may actually go to the other side, and “betray” her roots and family because of some sudden surge in hormones or some teenage infatuation. Lanthimos here sets the story in such a way that it becomes both ironic and horrifying and, ultimately, quite unbelievable.
It is precisely the incredulity factor which, sadly, damages the chances of this film being as brilliant. Unlike “The Lobster”, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” does not immediately strike one as this absurdist, completely original sequence of events, where everything, from the rules of society down to the strangeness of people’s facial expressions, makes the audience wonder and feel uneasy. “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” looks at a particular middle-class family and exploits its fears to the maximum, and, by doing so, it largely relies on the visions of normality, so the film can then contrast them with the impressive touches of incomprehensibility and apprehension.
The weight of the film fall on the shoulders of Keoghan (Martin) to frighten the audience; on the shoulders of Farrell (Steven) to deliver unexpected surprises; and on the shoulders of Kidman (Anna) to make enough scenes to make the audience believe as though the situation may be taken back under control. However, in the process, the film forgets the fact that the audience may be disengaged from the events because it may be hard to believe that some events can really happen as the film describes them, i.e., the film forgets the cause of the disturbance. The twist is set out (all these references to Steven’s “clean-nice-beautiful hands” are leading somewhere), but nothing is really explained as to the details and circumstances of the cause of the threat coming from Martin, be it magic, medicine, or something else. The film, therefore, is not as effective overall, unless of course the audience will be willing to take everything said and done at face value, which is a lot to ask here, given the already strange settings and events happening.
However, the outstanding cinematography and the effective choice of music do wonders here. There may be slow-moving scenes of the characters talking while pacing up and down white hospital corridors or them taking in some beautiful views of a city, Cincinnati (with its bridge and canals), but, then, Lanthimos makes an unexpected u-turn and we are confronted with worst case-scenarios, emerging out of nowhere. The effectiveness/absurdity of some scenes is memorable. The mother of Martin stupidly proclaims at one point: “I won’t let you leave until you tried my tart!, while in another scene, Kim will try to make her journey in the middle of the night, when already she will be very evidently quite incapable of doing so. In this movie, a family visit takes a sinister turn; a friendly gesture becomes suddenly menacing; and psychological tensions rise to unimaginable levels.
Disturbing, weird, provocative, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” may not have reached the high standard of Lanthimos’ previous film “The Lobster” (because some of the plot elements here could have been better thought-out), but Lanthimos once again here cements his status as one of the most intriguing, visionary and original filmmakers working today. Containing great performance from the very dedicated cast, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is a marvellous swirl of the unknown and the disturbing; a very effective psychological thriller with a haunting aftertaste. 8/10
The title of the film apparently comes from a Greek myth about the killing of a sacred deer by leader Agamemnon. By killing a sacred deer, the leader offended Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and the Moon, and, to evade his punishment, Agamemnon was required to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. Parallels can certainly be drawn with the plot of “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”.
Surprisingly, in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”, Nicole Kidman plays a role which is somewhat similar to her previous role in an underrated film “Malice” (1993), also starring Alec Baldwin. In that film, Baldwin plays a surgeon accused of botching an operation and removing a healthy organ from a patient because he was drunk. Kidman plays there an acquaintance of that surgeon, while, in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”, she plays a wife of a surgeon who is also implicated in a similar incident.