They say that revenge is a dish best served cold…or in the case of ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer,’ it’s best served with pitch black humour and chilling horror in equal amounts.
As with 2015’s ‘The Lobster,’ Yorgos Lanthimos excels in using insufferable situations to illustrate relatable human fears. And very much like his debut film ‘Dogtooth,’ a plethora of questions are asked to the audience with no tangible answers granted. Instead, it seems like he takes an almost merciless glee by trapping us within a terrifying and bizarre world with little hope of a happy ending. I can only envision when certain scenes were shot, Lanthimos would be sitting in the director’s chair, rubbing his hands together like a comic book villain with a mirthless smile broadening across his face. ‘Yes Colin,’ I would imagine him say in a Greek drawl, ‘Again. Slower this time. Throw the kid on the floor with more force.’
The Killing if a Sacred Deer is a film that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.
Colin Farrell plays Steven Murphy, a cardiac surgeon with a loving wife played by Nicole Kidman. They have two children—15-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and younger son, Bob (Sunny Suljic). They seem to be living in a world of suburban perfection; with their beautiful home, with their clean and sterile kitchens and their beautiful children that sing in choir recitals and perform well at school…but there’s something a little off about the way Farrell and Kidman talk to each other. Their voices are stilted and doughy, as if they’ve perfected a nonchalant routine for years…it’s this detachment and coolness that really sells the Kubrickian nightmare about to unfold.
Steven has befriended a 16-year-old named Martin (Dunkirk’s Barry Keoghan), the son of a man who died on Steven’s operating table a few years earlier. From the start, something whiffs a bit about the relationship between them. The two have lunch together at a diner, which seems to imply a secret rendezvous, then walk beside the river making small talk, during which Steven presents Martin with a very expensive watch. You expect an extra-marital affair is occurring, but the truth is a lot darker and sinister. It’s this murky undercurrent playing throughout that Lanthimos excels at from frame one. It keeps you guessing, trying to underpin the real subtext between Martin and Steven, and how this eerie stage has been set. Steven invites Martin round to dinner to meet his family, which has a perfunctory, disquieting feel to everything. We know that something’s not quite right with this picture, but we’re hooked like fish on a line – we need to find out what is happening in the Murphy household, and how this involves Martin.
After charming his way into the family’s confidence, Martin deals Steven a severe blow during one of their lunch meetings: Steven’s wife and children are all about to become paralysed from the waist down, after which they’ll refuse all food, bleed from the eyes, and ultimately die. The only way Steven can put a stop to this almost preordained event is to kill one of the family members himself. Because Martin’s father died on his operating table, the scales of justice must be balanced. An eye for an eye, so to speak. Or, in this case, a life for a life. Indeed, there’s a scene later in the film in which Martin bites the doctor and then swiftly sinks his teeth into his own forearm so deeply that his lips become smeared with blood and then proceeds to rip a chunk from his own flesh. “Do you understand?” he asks Steven and the audience. “It’s metaphorical.”
The power that Martin seems to wield over the Murphy family is never really explained, nor should it be – it could be making reference to the Greek myth of the killing of a sacred deer by Greek leader Agamemnon. Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, punished Agamemnon for this blasphemy of killing one of nature’s creatures, and the only way to remove the punishment was for the leader to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. One could argue that Steven, the surgeon, is the equivalent of Agamemnon. After revealing the news that his family will slowly start dying, his youngest child falls down and can’t use his legs….Steven can choose to kill one of his family members and end the nightmare, but being a man of science, he turns to medicine to explain what’s happening to his family, refusing to believe that it’s some kind of supernatural karma out to right his wrongs. There’s almost a biblical notion to the events unfolding – that Steven, as the authoritative surgeon sitting upon his throne of suburban perfection could resemble God, and that Martin is a mere mortal, one tasked with mystical providence to dethrone him.
There’s moments where you’ll be sniggering at the screen, where you’ll feel aghast of the scenes developing and instances where you’ll be feeling utter dread. As it dawns on the family that the father must make a choice to sacrifice one to save the many, they try to appeal to his better nature in the only way that they can – the wife suggests that one of the children could be killed, because she’ll be able to make more. The son wants his father to be proud of him, the daughter manipulates the brother – it’s effectively the breakdown of the perfect family from the inside, and it’s utterly mesmerising to watch.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer may not be everyone. As with ‘The Lobster,’ the stilted dialogue and jolting scenes may put some people off – as well as the bizarre surrealism on display on show here, but for everyone else (myself included) this is cinema that slinks around your subconscious long after you’ve left the theatre, daring you to ponder and ruminate the themes running throughout.
So…dear reader – look at your own family. Who would you sacrifice in order to save the others?
Review by Anthony Self
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