The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by Yorgos Lanthimos & Efthymis Filippou

Anyone familiar with Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous work might know what to expect when walking into the theater to see his latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer. That same person may also understand that because this is Yorgos Lanthimos we’re talking about, that expectations are just about as useless as with any other filmmaker working today. After the success of his film Dogtooth, Lanthimos went on to direct his first English language film last year with The Lobster, which also stars Colin Ferrell, who stars here. Neither film breached the mainstream, but how could they with their abstract narrative constructions and, excuse the language, but completely bonkers premises. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is no different. Bonkers. But the director’s style makes the experience just as rewarding as his previous efforts, if not also just as maddening.

Steven (Colin Ferrell) is a successful cardiologist, living an idyllic life with his beautiful wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), beautiful children Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic), and a good friend in colleague Matthew (Bill Camp). But after a patient of his dies on the operating table, the son Martin (Barry Keoghan) begins to hang around, apparently interested in becoming a cardiologist himself. Steven mentors Martin, until Martin begins to insert himself in Steven’s private life by coming over for lemonade, and befriending his children, particularly Kim. Soon Bob becomes mysteriously paralyzed, with no medical explanation, with Kim soon thereafter. Martin explains this is punishment for Steven for the death of Martin’s father, and that Steven must choose which family member will die, otherwise he will watch his whole family slowly succumb.

Most films fit nicely into pre-assigned packages. This is an action movie, this is a romance movie, this is a horror movie. Lanthimos plays by no such rules, instead blazing his own path and creating his own genre: bat shit crazy. At its core, The Killing of a Sacred Deer can likely be categorized as a horror film, with an eerie villain and mysterious danger lurking for the protagonist. But this film is also funny. The acting style, which was also used for The Lobster is rather unnatural, serving to heighten the strange relationships and interactions which abound throughout, while also providing an awkward laugh or two for the viewer. Lanthimos has a penchant for exploring rather taboo topics in the most casual ways. Here, sexuality is explored plenty, as well as proper etiquette when interacting with others. Lanthimos throws convention out the window and lets these topics lay bare in the open, forcing the viewer to reckon with them. It’s not reality, but some form of vacuum, serving as a sociological experiment. It works.

At the same time that The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a fascinating, intriguing, and never dull watch, someone way more intelligent than I am will need to explain what it’s going for. That’s not to say it isn’t going for something, but with how densely embedded its themes are in the narrative, I am not the one to figure it out, which also means that this viewing was rather frustrating and vapid. Is this some treatise on the ability, or inability, to cope with guilt, with loss? Does Martin represent some sort of demon of Steven’s past? Are the ailments really Martin’s doing, or a psychological put-on by Kim and Bob in response to Steven’s own guilt? All possibilities, but again, just not sure what it is all supposed to mean, or whether the proposition is all that important or interesting.

Instead, the interest comes simply from the intrigue, from the unique style of Lanthimos and his actors. Ferrell, per usual, is quite good here, along with Kidman. However, the real revelation is Barry Keoghan, whose performance is demented and full of physicality. I greatly enjoyed the experience of watching the film, but afterwards I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It is also not a film that is easily recommended to any normal person, as with Dogtooth and The Lobster. It fills such a small niche that I can’t imagine this doing much at the box office, even at art house theaters. Some people will go wild for it, I know one fellow critic who absolutely loves it. A lot of people will feel alienated and put-off from it. I managed to fall somewhere in the middle, enjoying the film while also thinking to myself, “what the hell was that!?”

*** – Good

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