The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a creepy off-tilt tale of revenge and retribution incorporating unexplained supernatural elements. Tense, intriguing and big on poetic expression, but doesn’t have a lot to say on humanity.
So what’s with the title – The Killing of a Sacred Deer – of this new film from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos? My post-viewing research revealed that it references a Greek myth in which Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to appease a goddess whose deer he has slain. There’s a solitary mention of Iphigenia during the movie that will mean zilch to those not au fait with obscure Greek mythology. This says something pertinent about Lanthimos – he’s a bit of a smartarse, a bit self-absorbed, a bit too self-consciously “clever” for his own good (and ours). To me, he’s the filmmaker equivalent of a young, talented poet who is yet to impose the discipline and thought on his art that will elevate it from promising to profound.
This was evident in his previous film The Lobster, a work that was critically acclaimed, but in my view exhausted its startling absurdist premise, devolving into a disappointingly ordinary second half. The Killing of a Sacred Deer marks a development in that it coheres far better than Lobster and maintains its strange tone throughout. By way of further contrast, it’s bizarre rather than absurd, more horror than black comedy, and doesn’t match Lobster for extreme whacked out originality.
The story in a nutshell: a creepy young man, Martin (Barry Keoghan), exacts a terrible revenge on cardiac surgeon Steven (Colin Farrell), somehow willing paralysis and worse on his children Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic), and threatening death on the entire family unless he makes a fearful sacrifice. The precise nature of that sacrifice and the details of Martin’s grievance with Steven do not emerge until relatively late in the film, which ups the intrigue and tension. Steven and his wife Anna’s attempts to contain the menace to their family take a brutal turn, which makes for some very confronting scenes – but nothing as shocking as the final predicament Steven is forced into.
There’s no question that this is a good thriller. And it’s unsettlingly strange. The characters speak in flat, almost robotic tones, and in this Lanthimos’ direction is reminiscent of Bresson, who insisted on his actors ‘not acting’ (o these Euro auteurs). Then there’s Steven and Anna’s sex life: she arouses him with a GA routine, in which she strips and lies comatose across the marital bed (funny and, dare I say, sorta hot). But the real star of this freak show is Barry Keoghan, who brilliantly negotiates a transformation in his character from stray cur hanging around a puzzlingly tolerant and generous Steven at his hospital workplace to malevolent puppet master sitting on an increasingly unstable volcano of submerged rage and infiltrating the family to its core.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer may be based around an ancient myth, but is not itself mythic in essence. That is, it does not function to explain the human world. This is where Lanthimos falls short. He is big on imagination and poetic expression, but doesn’t as yet have a lot to say on humanity. Which leaves us – at least, me – feeling both impressed with his work, and unfilled.
Movie Website: http://killingofasacreddeer.movie/
The Killing of a Sacred Deer features: Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan, Alicia Silverstone, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Writers: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou
Runtime: 121 min
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