With The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Yorgos Lanthimos crafts a daring, nerve-racking and shocking story of revenge that benefits from fantastic performances

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Di­rect­ed by Yor­gos Lan­thi­mos. Writ­ten by Yor­gos Lan­thi­mos and Efthymis Fil­ip­pou. Star­ring Col­in Far­rell, Nicole Kid­man, Bar­ry Keoghan, Raf­fey Cas­sidy, Sun­ny Suljic, Ali­cia Sil­ver­stone and Bill Camp.

Greek di­rec­tor Yor­gos Lan­thi­mos has a very dis­tinc­tive and rec­og­niz­able voice as a film­mak­er. His works are what we would nor­mal­ly call “weird,” peo­pled with bizarre char­ac­ters that look eeri­ly un­emo­tion­al and don’t ex­act­ly abide by our norms of so­cial con­duct. Like in his pre­vi­ous films Dog­tooth (2009) and The Lob­ster (2015), it is odd­ly amus­ing to see peo­ple who could be eas­i­ly mis­tak­en for ro­bots (or grown-up chil­dren) in sit­u­a­tions that would be­fit the strangest episodes of The Twi­light Zone. But more fas­ci­nat­ing is how Lan­thi­mos builds a suf­fo­cat­ing sense of ap­pre­hen­sion and dread from his ideas, this time craft­ing an an­guish­ing and shock­ing sto­ry of re­venge that ben­e­fits from some fan­tas­tic performances.

Writ­ten by Lan­thi­mos and his usu­al col­lab­o­ra­tor Efthymis Fil­ip­pou, The Killing of a Sa­cred Deer (whose ti­tle is an al­lu­sion to the an­cient Greek tragedy Iphi­ge­nia in Aulis by Eu­ripi­des, which gets men­tioned at some point in the film) fol­lows car­dio­tho­racic sur­geon Steven Mur­phy (Col­in Far­rell), mar­ried to oph­thal­mol­o­gist Anna (Nicole Kid­man) and fa­ther of two kids, who has been in se­cret con­tact with a teenage boy linked to his past. The boy, Mar­tin (Bar­ry Keoghan), seems at first to ad­mire Steven’s per­fect fam­i­ly, but it doesn’t take long for his pres­ence to fore­shad­ow a trag­ic pun­ish­ment that will be­fall the en­tire fam­i­ly and push Steven to­wards a dread­ful de­ci­sion that he needs to make so he can atone for his sins.

Be­gin­ning the film with the scene of a heart surgery to the sound of Franz Schu­bert, Lan­thi­mos sets the tone right away and builds an un­set­tling at­mos­phere with a cold palette, sa­cred mu­sic and the use of ca­coph­o­nous in­stru­ments es­pe­cial­ly when­ev­er Mar­tin ap­pears. It is clear that he wants to make us feel un­com­fort­able with­out us know­ing ex­act­ly why. His cam­era glides and trav­els through long cor­ri­dors fol­low­ing the char­ac­ters, and he also em­ploys wide-an­gle lens­es that dis­tort rooms and zooms that en­hance this gen­er­al sense of weird­ness. In cer­tain mo­ments, he even comes up with creepy shots in or­di­nary cir­cum­stances, like when we see Anna floss­ing her teeth in the bath­room or a fish be­ing dilacerated.

The fact that the plot, the char­ac­ters and the di­a­logue are so un­con­ven­tion­al (to say the least) also con­tributes to keep­ing us on edge. Steven is an awk­ward char­ac­ter who bears an un­de­ni­able sim­i­lar­i­ty to the one Far­rell played in The Lob­ster, speak­ing with a weird­ly un­emo­tion­al, al­most ro­bot­ic voice. He and Anna are in fact an ab­surd­ly an­a­lyt­i­cal cou­ple, be­hav­ing so dif­fer­ent­ly from “nor­mal” peo­ple that it can be hi­lar­i­ous to see them act out their gen­er­al anes­the­sia sex­u­al fan­ta­sy or talk so nat­u­ral­ly about their daughter’s men­stru­a­tion at a par­ty. It is as if The Killing of a Sa­cred Deer is some sort of al­go­rithm cre­at­ed by a ro­bot who could nev­er un­der­stand how bizarre it is that Steven once mas­tur­bat­ed his own fa­ther as a kid out of curiosity.

As Mar­tin be­haves more and more like a stalk­er, ap­pear­ing every­where to the Mur­phys, and as we wit­ness creepy con­ver­sa­tions about armpit hair and Steven’s “love­ly hands,” the ten­sion grows quick­ly. A dis­creet close-up shows that Mar­tin and Steven’s son Bob (Sun­ny Suljic) wear the same pair of shoes, and when Bob is seen from a high an­gle col­laps­ing on the floor of the hos­pi­tal, we hear ner­vous strings that in­crease the sus­pense. Things are made more un­set­tling by the sight of long dis­tort­ed cor­ri­dors and how Lan­thi­mos usu­al­ly keeps the cam­era too close to the floor or to the ceil­ing. It is only when those phleg­mat­ic char­ac­ters lose con­trol and Steven suc­cumbs to his men­tal de­spair that we re­al­ize they have reached their limit.

The tour-de-force per­for­mances couldn’t be more in tune with the ma­te­r­i­al. I love, for in­stance, Kidman’s cold puz­zle­ment when Anna is asked how she is feel­ing and replies “I’m fine, what do you mean?” even though her child is in the hos­pi­tal suf­fer­ing from an uniden­ti­fied con­di­tion. Mean­while, Keoghan com­pos­es Mar­tin as a seem­ing­ly autis­tic and frag­ile kid who could be just look­ing for a new fa­ther but lat­er re­veals a mer­ci­less side. And if the nerve-rack­ing scene full of close-ups in which he ex­plains his mo­ti­va­tions to Anna is dis­turb­ing enough, take a look at when Steven and Anna’s daugh­ter Kim (Raf­fey Cas­sidy) asks Bob if she can have his MP3 play­er af­ter he is dead. In a few years, this will be re­mem­bered as clas­sic Lanthimos.

Like a bizarre com­bi­na­tion of Fa­tal At­trac­tion (1987) and Teo­re­ma (1968), The Killing of a Sa­cred Deer reach­es a shock­ing cli­max that doesn’t care about ex­plain­ing the caus­es of the “curse” — which, when you think about it, doesn’t mat­ter. What mat­ters is the price that Steven must pay to have a per­fect bar­be­cue in that per­fect house again, or at least some­thing close to that. The end­ing may not be for everyone’s stom­ach, but it is dar­ing, bru­tal and ex­treme­ly re­veal­ing about hu­man na­ture. You just have to see it for yourself.


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