[VIFF 2017] REVIEW: 'The Killing of a Sacred Deer' is mind-bendingly creepy
It’s difficult to describe Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ work in a paragraph, much less a sentence, but if you had boil it down and pick a word, it’d definitely be: bizarre. Lanthimos and writing partner Efthymis Filippou return with Colin Farrell after the critically-acclaimed The Lobster with The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which follows the transgressions of Dr. Steven Murphy (Farrell), a surgeon with a hidden past that comes to haunt him in the form of Martin (Barry Keoghan), a weirdly perceptive and clingy teenager whose father died on Steven’s operating table. It’s been labeled as a horror film, even though it never really feels like one except for a few scenes, but it certainly can make you feel very uncomfortable. That’s apparent from the opening scene, where an open-heart surgery is performed.
There’s a running theme for nearly all of Lanthimos’ characters, and it’s that they’re all terribly flawed and morally ambiguous individuals. That starts with Steven, who’s not quite as perceptive and brilliant as his job title or fancy hospital workplace would suggest. “A surgeon never kills a patient,” Steven says, “An anesthesiologist can kill a patient, but a surgeon never can.” His insecurity is obvious except to the film’s characters, and he constantly tries to subvert or ridicule his colleague, Matthew (Bill Camp).
The relationship with his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman, who’s actually not entirely boring here), feels robotic, unnatural and distant, and maybe that’s why it works, because Kidman’s always had this steely quality since The Stepford Wives that I can’t shake, and there’s a stiffness to all of Lanthimos’ characters that makes Kidman a good fit. They’ve got two kids, Kim and Bob (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic, both brilliant), who are obviously navigating – at times, hilariously – through puberty, but whatever reservations there are about politeness and courtesy in the lives of other people clearly don’t exist in Lanthimos’ world.
Which brings us to Martin, who is wonderfully played by Keoghan. There’s a presence to Keoghan’s performance that demands you to keep an eye on him. Every line of dialogue is delivered without any hesitation, he never seems to blink or break eye contact and his hunched shoulders is a reminder that he’s always hiding something potentially powerful and dangerous. There’s a scene of him eating leftover spaghetti, and I don’t know what it is about film characters eating spaghetti that makes it so endlessly fascinating (How do they twirl their fork? Do they cut it up? How do they chew? … I blame Adele Exarchopoulos), but it’s very disquieting, and the dark red sauce with its small crumbs of ground beef is no doubt a foreshadowing of what happens later in the film. Like Paul Dano, Keoghan nails down the look, feel and temperament of someone who’s deeply disturbed. Keoghan is often shot from different angles in each scene, which makes Martin even more elusive and unpredictable.
Where The Lobster becomes a relatively straightforward film about a man looking for love in all the wrong places after adjusting to the absurdity of its characters and the world they inhabit, Sacred Deer is much less so. I think it seeks to visually maim and shock its audience, and that the story leaves a lot to be desired on purpose. That being said, the film is supposedly based on “Iphigenia in Aulis”, which is a play set in Greek mythology where Agamemnon attempts to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, during the Trojan War. Steven is presented with the same dilemma, in which he has to make brutal sacrifice for the greater good; that greater good, of course, is ambiguous, and he’s often at the mercy of a situation beyond his control, a sharp juxtaposition for someone who’s expected to save lives.
I don’t feel Sacred Deer is as strong of an original screenplay as The Lobster, but Lanthimos’ films certainly defy conventional genre classification, which is great because he can push many boundaries. But, it can also be a burden to watch and comprehend something as absurd as Sacred Deer, because some of its grisly and unsettling bits leave you wondering what the hell is actually going on.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer gets three and a half stars out of four.