"The Killing of a Sacred Deer" (2017) Review
I just realized I don't have a review of The Lobster to refer back to and that could end up being a bit of an issue here.
The Lobster was released to U.S. audiences last year and marked the first film I had ever seen from Greek film director Yorgos Lanthimos. It was one of my favorite films of 2016. I figured I had a grip on his particular stylings from seeing The Lobster and hearing about some other films he's made, mainly Dogtooth. I figured that his newest film The Killing of a Sacred Deer would be an absurdist film built around deadpan acting that heightens the absurdity.
That's only part of it.
The visual language alone of The Lobster versus The Killing of a Sacred Deer is more than enough to separate these two films. Both films have Lanthimos' trademark wide-shots, but where The Lobster kept its camera still for the most part, The Killing of a Sacred Deer uncomfortably moves and zooms the camera, as if to put the audience off their axis. It's the tone and story where both films really separate down their own paths though. They both might have Collin Farrell in leading roles, but that's where the similarities end. The Lobster almost felt like a lost Luis Buñuel concept with a dark sense of humor. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is not only far meaner, but has more trappings of horror than it does any other genre. That might not surprise anyone who saw The Lobster, considering that film opens with a scene where a woman shoots a donkey in the head on the side of the road.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer's first shot involves a close-up of a beating heart mid-surgery.
That's not the most gruesome thing that happens either.
That's not to say that The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a gore-fest masquerading as an art-house piece. It's definitely still an absurdist film, and that's established as soon as the characters speak. The dialogue makes no attempts at realism as characters reveal way too much information about themselves while being barely prompted. That might sound like a criticism, but it's what makes the film ultimately work. It's disconnect from reality makes it one of the most interesting films of the year, especially when the film's real plot kicks in.
Colin Farrell plays Steven Murphy, a surgeon who befriends a young man named Martin, played by Barry Keoghan (it's worth putting an aside here to mention that Keoghan was also in Dunkirk this year as that film's "moral center" in some ways, something that feels bitterly ironic here). They have a history together, specifically that Steven operated on someone close to Martin. Despite these two having friendly but odd conversations, the film's musical score keeps clueing us in on one indisputable fact: Something's wrong with Martin. Very wrong. But that doesn't stop Steven from introducing Martin to his whole family.
At first, it goes very well. Steven's wife Anna, played by Nicole Kidman, likes Martin enough. While their son Bob, played by Sunny Suljic, doesn't really care about Martin, their daughter Kim, played by Raffey Cassidy, takes a strong liking to him.
This all eventually backfires on Steven and his family, but not in any way that you'd expect. Again, this is a Yorgos Lanthimos film. Normal film rules do not apply here. Any prediction you might be concocting in your head about what Martin's plan and execution are will probably not be accurate. You might guess his motivation fairly quickly, faster than the film leads on, but even if you've seen trailers the actual nature of Martin's scheme is not only bizarre, but it kind of doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
And that's okay.
Yorgos Lanthimos' blend of realistic environments (mostly shot in Cincinnati) and surreal dialogue allow him to set the stage for whatever he pleases, and this time around he wants to take a Greek myth styled tragedy and put it in a modern setting.
I won't give too much of the plot away here because the film's own reveals are so stunningly nonchalant in delivery that they circle around to becoming jaw dropping moments. Then there are also some truly jaw dropping moments anyways, intense in any context and let alone the context that Lanthimos cooks up for each scene. I know a couple paragraphs back I said this wasn't a gore-fest, but it's worth saying that just like his last film The Lobster, when The Killing of a Sacred Deer decides it has to draw blood it doesn't play around. It's rare to get a full body cringe out of me while I'm in a theater, but congratulations to The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Mission accomplished.
I will openly admit that this film's absurdist stylings will drive a lot of people away from it. The slow-burn structure is also initially off-putting, but it's undeniably satisfying to see the ways in which the film pulls its threads together. If you're in the market for an uncomfortable art house film, you're not going to do much better this year than The Killing of a Sacred Deer.