“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” Review

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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

**SPOILER ALERT**

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. 

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27 Responses to “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” Review

  1. I agree with your comprehensive assessment. This absurdist arthouse film is tantalisingly ambiguous; most viewers will not be sure if they are watching a supernatural horror, a psychological thriller, or a black comedy. Thats its greatest strenght.

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      It could be seen that way, yes. Though, I see it as a straight psychological thriller since the film does not tell much to be even close to anything supernatural, and it has few laughs to be a straight black comedy. It definitely has enough thrills and surprises to be an absurdist ride of a thriller into a particularly Lanthimos’ vision of the world. Thanks for the comment.

      • Not spoiling for a fight, but I dissent. Psychological thrillers assume an empirically verifiable pathology of some sort. Supernatural causation is anything other than science. The outer-worldliness of Sacred Deer is obvious in the title: sacred is beyond the natural. We find no visible causal chain to Martin; vengence is being directed from somewhere beyond the human. We are meant to conclude so, but with enough other clues to create the absurdist confusion that the director intends.

        • dbmoviesblog says:

          We always disagree on something, don’t we? Well, if you take this definition of “supernatural”, then, I guess, this film could be considered as such, though it is still a bit of a stretch, isn’t it? The reason I say this film is not supernatural is that apart from Martin’s unexplained causing of the children’s illness, there is nothing too unscientific here. And, because the film does not even try to explain how Martin causes the illness, it is not even that supernatural in that. He may have used medical and verifiable means, for all we know. And, sure, we know the reason/cause behind Martin’s vengeance. The title is all to do with Greek mythology, and all the flowing concepts from it are all philosophical, metaphysical at best.

          • I bet you were a top debater at school. The most delicious part of the story is, as you say, “Martin’s unexplained causing of the children’s illness”. Thats because he may not have caused it at all. Hence the sacred comes into play. As always, nice chatt’n with you.

  2. keith1942 says:

    Comprehensive review. For me the problem with the films is a common one with directors from non-English national cinemas trying to break into international cinema: the conventions of this militate against their distinctive cinematic qualities.

    Abbas Kiarostami remarked once that an uprooted tree loses its source.

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Thanks. Well, I think Lanthimos has found his feet in the international cinema, and surprisingly – has become successful. No one predicted his commercial success abroad with “The Lobster”, but it happened. I think it is precisely Greek Lanthimos who is now producing both distinctive and original plots and distinctive visual components, cinematography. A rare thing, indeed, for, who was, essentially, a niche European director.

  3. MIB says:

    I like Lanthimos but I wish he would return to Greece so I don’t have to watch a load of actors I don’t like in his films 😛

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Haha! I see! Well, who do you have in mind here? lol I hope it is not Colin Farrell? I have to say that man redeems himself film after film. He once said that he was a new man now and he has just woken up to the adult responsibilities of life. I am sure we will see more good acting from in future, and in more serious films like this one. What a recovery from him, though, considering his sometimes trashy and uneven filmography of the past.

      • MIB says:

        Um…yes, I was referring to Farrell. I’ve never liked him and even his face annoys me. BUT, he was pretty good in The Lobster so maybe he needs a director like Lanthimos to work him hard and have him pull his head in.

        And Nicole Kidman who is another one that leaves me cold. Blandness personified. :/

  4. This one spikes my interest. I like absurdity and appreciated your review.

  5. markkadams says:

    Most critics claim “The Lobster” was better than this one, but I couldn’t disagree more. The Lobster was a deeply flawed film imo. Sacred Deer, by contrast, was quite brilliant.

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      That’s an interesting opinion. I am interested to hear more what you have to say here.
      I actually think that The Lobster should not really be compared to the Killing of a Sacred Deer, because these two films are so different in the aims they set. The Lobster has more emphasis on this totally different world – futurism and unfairness, where as here in the Killing of a Sacred Deer, it is more of hidden dangers/threats present and psychological horror feelings. Very different things, and in some way, the Killing of the Sacred Deer may be seen as more thought-provoking, because its messages are more subtle, but powerful nevertheless.

      • markkadams says:

        You may look at my brief write-ups of each of these movies. To add one more thing, for me, as I recall, The Lobster had a serious credibility gap that hurt it.

  6. hmzfilm says:

    Enjoyed this write up. Thanks for sharing. Here’s mine: https://hmzfilm.com/2017/12/16/the-killing-of-a-sacred-deer/

  7. Youre so cool! I dont suppose Ive read anything in this way prior to. So nice to locate somebody by original thoughts on this subject. realy thank you for beginning this up. this fabulous website can be something that is required on the net, an individual with a bit of originality. helpful project for bringing new things to your internet!

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  10. garethrhodes says:

    Bumped up in my to-see list.

  11. I really enjoyed this movie. The absurdity of it. The dark humor (when they are sitting with the hoods over their heads–Nicole Kidman’s reaction is priceless). It’s an either love it or hate it movie.

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