OnScreen Review: 'The Killing of a Sacred Deer'

OnScreen Review: 'The Killing of a Sacred Deer'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

As much as I loved La La Land last year, my favorite movie of the year was The Lobster, a darkly comic and dystopian film from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. I enjoyed its bizarre absurdist story with glee in the movie theater. Therefore, I was eagerly awaiting Lanthimos’ latest film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Even if it didn’t match the odd delight of The Lobster, I was confident that I was going to be in the sure hands of a provocative filmmaker and that the film could be a rare cinematic experience.

Indeed, The Killing of a Sacred Deer was an experience. Lanthimos reunites with his leading actor from The Lobster for this film, Colin Farrell. Farrell portrays a Stephen Murphy, a cardiologist who has befriended a teenager named Martin (Barry Keoghan, last seen as George in Dunkirk). Farrell, sporting an impressive beard, carries over the same dialogue delivery from The Lobster for most of the film; this sort of deadpan, emotionless, line reading that is oddly funny. The nature of their relationship is awkward, secretive, and initially seems to be borderline inappropriate, until the true reason for the connection between them is established.

The film takes a dark turn when Stephen introduces Martin to his family; his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), his daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and his son Bob (Sunny Suljic). Shortly after this, strange things begin happening to Kim and Bob, including the random loss of use of their legs and a loss of appetite, leading to their hospitalization, and a revelation from Martin to Stephen that a sacrifice must be made to balance the scales of justice, or Stephen will lose his entire family.

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From a brief Google search, I gleaned that the story of the film is loosely based on the ancient Greek story of Agamemnon who had to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to appease the goddess Artemis after killing one of her sacred deer in a grove (hence the title). This explains the apparent curse that Martin puts on Stephen’s children, something that defies science and reason, which is something that makes it hard for Stephen to accept as a doctor. In fact, the more I think of it, the more sense it makes that someone like Lanthimos would revel in the absurdity of telling an ancient mythological story in a modern setting. Still, something about the whole thing is a little more impenetrable and delightful than The Lobster.

What the film does not lack, however, is the signature provocative spirit for which Lanthimos has started to become known. Lanthimos is a director who has a little bit of Michael Haneke in him; he delights in pushing the buttons of his audience and making them squirm from being uncomfortable. For my tastes, though, I find Lanthimos to be more playful whereas I find Haneke more overtly antagonistic in his provocations.

How does this play out in the film? Lanthimos comes at the audience in many ways. After giving a speech at a dinner party, Stephen blurts out in casual conversation with his anesthesiologist, Matthew (Bill Camp), that his daughter just started getting her period. Later on, in trying to get his son to admit why he won’t eat, he confesses an incredibly weird and embarrassing story from his childhood that is cringe-inducing; arguably one of the worst father and son heart-to-hearts ever captured on film. There is an incredibly awkward scene where Martin invites Stephen over to his home to meet his mother, played by Alicia Silverstone. Later in the film, when it becomes clearer that both of their lives could be hanging in the balance, both Kim and Bob start to see each other as competition and try in various ways to cozy up to their father, including offering to walk the dog or water the plants even though they don’t have the use of their legs. And the resolution of the film is just crazy.

 

If the film did not have a capable cast, the absurdity of the story would simply not work; but that is not the case. I have enjoyed Farrell’s work immensely in the last decade ever since he started shying away from trying to be a movie star and just embraced being a quality actor. Kidman (in her second movie of the year with Farrell after The Beguiled) is phenomenal as the mother who is trying to keep it together even as her world is crumbling around her. As the stress of the situation worsens, they reveal some cracks in the foundation of their marriage. There is definitely some resentment there toward her husband for giving up her own career at the hospital to be a stay at home mom. The children, particularly Raffey Cassidy) are solid. Cassidy is someone who was one of the few bright spots in Tomorrowland, and she has grown as an actress even since then. Keoghan, who shares more than passing resemblance to Tye Sheridan, is impressive in an off-putting way. Lanthimos almost certainly saw 2015’s Buzzard, as he gives Keoghan a spaghetti eating scene to rival that indie film.

While there were plenty of gleefully twisted moments in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the film as a whole is less of a squeamish treat overall than The Lobster, and a little less engaging. Still, there is plenty of perverse enjoyment to be found for those who are fans of the absurd in general or Yorgos Lanthimos himself. His films are certainly not mainstream and palatable for everyone; frankly, I’m shocked that this got as wide of a release as it has gotten. While I did not love this film as much as I had hoped, I certainly appreciate that Lanthimos is a director who has not compromised on anything that makes him a unique voice as a filmmaker, even as the Hollywood system has started to embrace him.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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