Sponsor

First Look Review - THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER

the killing of a sacred deer review
A young man forms a sinister bond with a surgeon whose operation led to his father's death.







Review by John Bennett

Directed by: Yorgo Lanthimos

Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Alicia Silverstone, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Bill Camp

the killing of a sacred deer poster

After the wild success of the sleeper hit The Lobster (2015), it’s conceivable that the distinctive and exciting Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos had carte blanche for a follow up project. That project turned out to be the ominously titled The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a film that is perhaps the director’s darkest to date. Watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer, you get a somewhat split impression of Lanthimos’s evolution as a filmmaker. On the one hand, this new film is a product of a bold stylist who has grown more controlled and adventurous in depicting cruel and unusual worlds; on the other, it is also a narrative by a storyteller who appears not to have fully reckoned with the magnitude and consequences of his film’s disturbing tragedy.

the killing of a sacred deer

In terms of story, The Killing of a Sacred Deer makes The Lobster look like The Shop Around the Corner (1940). Stephen and Anna Murphy (Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman) are both successful doctors who live contentedly in a nice house with their two children, Kim, a teenager, (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic), who is slightly younger. At the hospital where he performs heart surgeries, Stephen takes under his wing the squinty-eyed, pizza-faced Martin (Barry Keoghan), a teenager who, though lacking social graces (even in Lanthimos’s universe of awkward interactions), seems innocently predisposed towards the unsmiling surgeon. Martin’s father died during an operation performed by Stephen; possibly out of a sense of guilt, the doctor spends more and more time with Martin, introducing the teen to his family and visiting his house as well. The Killing of a Sacred Deer kicks into disturbing high gear when we realise that Martin may not be completely over the death of his father. In one chilling moment, Martin quickly and flatly spells out the details of a mysterious revenge plot to Stephen, the details of which I’ll let you masochists who will go on to see this dark film discover at your own delight.

On a stylistic level The Killing of a Sacred Deer is totally engrossing. Even if the dark worlds that Lanthimos has explored share a sense of sinister sangfroid, he proves that he can approach his themes in different ways. Dogtooth was cold and clinical; The Lobster was lush and graceful. With The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos pushes his style even further. He and cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis (who shot all of Lanthimos’ films with the exception of Alps (2011)) turn mundane bourgeois backdrops into settings for nightmares. From the start (after an introductory close-up of open heart surgery), a brisk tracking shot through the halls of the hospital give the impression that the doctors are in a sinister labyrinth and around any corner could be lurking some terrible Minotaur. The cold fluorescent lighting of a basement den transforms it into a chamber of horrors. An upper-class living room is lit like an anteroom to hell in the film’s chilling climax. Cracks of quiet panic can be traced in the stone faces of both Farrell and Kidman. As the film becomes more and more queasily distressing, its soundtrack rumbles with growing intensity and the film’s general fish-eye way of capturing images seems to grow even more distorted. And, as if to relieve the tension, the film’s dénouement is executed with the same flowing grace as many of the best visual moments from The Lobster.

the killing of a sacred deer

The Killing of a Sacred Deer isn’t enjoyable on a stylistic level alone; this new work draws you in via Lanthimos’s dark magic. Before the Murphys’ woes take root, we get a window into their personal lives: in true Lanthimosian fashion, the doctor and his wife like to play “anesthetised patient” in the bedroom…it’s as kinky as it sounds. This moment typifies what works best in Lanthimos’s dark satires; though it’s a little unsettling, this sex game that the two play effectively paints the portrait of a happily married couple, in tune with each other’s professions and kinks. In a similarly expository moment, Martin invites Stephen over to his house to watch Groundhog Day, the dour lad’s favorite movie, while Martin’s widowed mother (Alicia Silverstone) makes uncomfortable passes at Stephen. Equally funny is the strange little adolescent romance that develops between Martin and Kim, even after Martin’s malevolence has been made perfectly clear. These moments provide much needed levity once Martin’s long, terrible revenge begins, to which, it must be said, there is a perverse horror-film pleasure in watching unfold. When The Killing of a Sacred Deer is at its best, it makes us laugh nervously as we marvel at the slow, but intense burn of its suspenseful central story.

the killing of a sacred deer

Yet somewhere along the way, The Killing of a Sacred Deer crosses a line between the devilishly perverse and the gratuitously sadistic. Dogtooth and The Lobster both verged on being gimmicky studies in violence and abuse, but seemed to be exploring ideas in enough of a nuanced way so as to overcome anything gimmicky in their premises. The Killing of a Sacred Deer doesn’t quite do the same. Granted, Lanthimos and his constant writing partner Efthymus Filippou wisely never explain the rules, be they scientific or supernatural, behind Martin’s strange revenge - they know that such phenomena seem more terrible and menacing when they can’t be explained away or pinned down. But that very terror and menace seem devoid of substance. I’m always loath to condemn difficult films for being difficult. The sadism of Eraserhead (1977), The Night Porter (1974), Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), Breaking the Waves (1996) - and even Dogtooth - certainly make first viewings hard to stomach. But with these films (all of which are great), you get the sense that fascinating perversity is buttressed by deep political or emotional thought. The Killing of a Sacred Deer eventually seems to be über-nasty for the hell of it. It’s not without its Grand Guignol charm, but it also feels very shallow considering the momentous difficulty of the territory it explores in its second half (which, again, I won’t give away for the sake of viewers who - like me - like to be shocked). Ultimately, The Killing of a Sacred Deer has similar strengths as some of those other difficult visions, but you won’t be able to shake the suspicion that it’s a schlocky horror film masquerading as high art cinema, making its dark world that much more difficult to swallow.

With the success of Dogtooth and The Lobster, Lanthimos has become a director who, like David Lynch or Michael Haneke, can draw certain art-house audiences who have rightfully fallen in love with his twisted way of seeing the world. There’s a lot to love about The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and, seeing as it is an upsetting vision, perhaps time will vindicate it of any critiques regarding the brutality of its plot. But for now, I would say approach with caution: it’s a stylistic tour-de-force that’s also unthinkingly cruel.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is in UK/ROI cinemas November 17th.



discussion by