REVIEW: The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Theatrical Release Poster – A24 & Curzon Artificial Eye

The following is a review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer – Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.

Danish auteur Lars Von Trier — the director behind such films as Breaking the Waves, Melancholia, and Anti-Christ — once said that a film should be ‘like a rock in your shoe.’ The newest work from Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos titled The Killing of a Sacred Deer is that kind of film.

It is sure to both captivate and appall audiences, but it doesn’t matter whether you like it or not, it is an unforgettable film either way. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a sizable and sharp rock that dug deep into me. It is more than just a pebble, and I think that I’m going to be thinking about this movie for days.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer is supposedly inspired by Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, which I believe is actually also referenced directly in the film. The Killing of a Sacred Deer revolves around Steven Murphy (played by Colin Farrell), a distinguished surgeon with a full beard and an affinity for metal watch straps.

Steven has a wife — Anna (played by Nicole Kidman) — and two kids — a boy, Bob (played by Sunny Suljic), and a girl, Kim (played by Raffey Cassidy) — but it is the influence of another youth that comes to define the plot. Martin (played by Barry Keoghan) is a particularly clingy teenager that Steven has taken under his wing, so to speak, after Martin’s father died on Steven’s operating table.

But when Steven’s relationship with Martin and his mother isn’t quite as impassioned as Martin would like it to be, the teenager’s want for revenge and justice reveals itself. Following the logic of the law of retaliation, Martin presents Steven with an ultimatum of disturbing proportions that I refuse to directly ‘spell out’ in a review.

I find that The Killing of a Sacred Deer is very much in the vein of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, but it includes a distinctly Kubrickian sense for shot composition and framing that reminded me very much of Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining.

I was also struck by a surprisingly successful combination of tones. This is at once a darkly or bizarrely amusing, but deeply unsettling psychological horror film. The shifts in tone are almost always seamlessly executed, which is a huge compliment to Lanthimos.

Although seemingly set in the real world, the film contains several key signifiers of a certain otherworldliness. The characters’ dialogue is markedly mundane and yet jarringly bizarre, and the central premise of the film is reliant on somewhat of a leap of faith as no sharply defined explanation is really given for how Martin goes about exacting his revenge.

As the Murphy-family’s sense of safety starts to break down, the ways in which they react to a sudden and seemingly inevitable change of fate becomes a prominent theme. Disbelief becomes deep sorrow, hurt individuals become scheming and manipulating creatures that seem to only exist to torture an indecisive central character that may be more comfortable seeking advice from those uninvolved with the drama surrounding the Murphy family and a vindictive outside force.

Colin Farrell — who, of course, had previously worked with Lanthimos on the successful dark comedy The Lobster — and Nicole Kidman give fine performances, but they are both overpowered by a young actor who seems to be making quite a name for himself with two impressive feature films this year.

Barry Keoghan is the shining star of The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Although Keoghan did appear in Christopher Nolan’s war movie masterpiece Dunkirk, it is his performance as Martin in Lanthimos’ horror film that may prove to be the true breakthrough for the talented young Irish actor.

I saw his character as less of a symbol of evil, and more as a young man coping with loss. He, essentially, becomes a vindictive trickster in response to what he presumes to be negligent behavior on Steven’s part. Steven and his family, on the other hand, can be taken to represent how even the wealthiest can be vulnerable to the crippling, cold, and cruel world present in Lanthimos’ stories.

However, I think it could have been improved by maybe leaving ten-to-fifteen minutes of the final product on the cutting room floor — I don’t think it is as streamlined as it could be — but, honestly, the film never bored me. I think The Killing of a Sacred Deer is another successful Yorgos Lanthimos film that deals with distinctly bleak themes, but the thematic gray cloud doesn’t ever overshadow the sense of unease that permeates the feature film.

9 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen

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