If Darren Aronofsky’s superb mother! (our review) hadn’t just been released, it would be easy to say that Yorgos Lanthimos‘ (The Lobster, Dogtooth) latest film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, would be the most polarizing film of 2017. Just compare this review to our own Benedict Seal’s 1-skull review for the film out of Cannes to see how different our takes on it are. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is most certainly not a film for everyone (there were quite a few walkouts at my screening), but I loved all 120 of its excruciatingly unsettling minutes.
An adaptation of the Greek myth of Agamemnon (in which he kills a deer sacred to the goddess Artemis and is instructed to kill his daughter Iphigenia to appease her), The Killing of a Sacred Deer tells the tragic(omedic?) story of the Murphy Family. Patriarch Steven (Colin Farrell) is a cardiologist who is happily married to Anna (Nicole Kidman), an ophthalmologist. Steven has been having secret meetings with teenage Martin (Barry Keoghan) every couple of days. As the film progresses, Martin weasels his way further and further into Steven’s life, going so far as to befriend with his 15-year-old daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) after Steven invites him to a family dinner. One morning, Steven’s son Bob (Sunny Suljic) wakes up one and is unable to move his legs. Martin informs Steven that the rest of his family will eventually lose the use of their legs before starving themselves and finally bleeding from their eyes as justice for Martin’s father (the sacred deer of the title) dying on Steven’s operating table two years prior. The only way to prevent this curse is to (bum bum BUUUUUUUUM) kill a member of his family.
For a film with such a serious premise, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is oddly funny. Not having seen any of Lanthimos’ previous films, I was shocked by the way he tells his story. He and co-writer Efthymis Filippou inject a healthy dose of macabre humor into the proceedings, the funniest of which are the abundance of scenes featuring the children dragging themselves around the house after they have lost the use of their legs. Is the humor intentional? Are we supposed to laugh when, armed with the knowledge that Steven may choose her as his sacrifice, Anna’s self-preservation kicks in and she casually mentions that killing one of the children is the most logical conclusion? I’m not sure, but I most certainly did.
Viewers may find themselves unsure of how to react in these situations, but that’s sort of the point. Lanthimos and Filippou seem determined to break as many taboos as they can with The Killing of a Sacred Deer, including but not limited to filicide and incest (the latter of which is due to an extremely uncomfortable father-son discussion between Steven and Bob). Pairing these scenes with the booming orchestral score makes these sequences even more jarring.
What’s baffling (and sort of brilliant) about the film is that Lanthimos doesn’t ever try to hide what is going on with this family, but he also doesn’t give any logical explanation as to how this is happening. It just…is. Martin lays out everything to Steven in a rushed matter-of-fact monologue (as if he’s a child confessing something to a parent) towards the end of the first act, removing any mystery from the proceedings. The remainder of the film is devoted to watching this family deal with a horrifying situation as Steven struggles to decide which of his loved ones he will sacrifice.
Lanthimos’ direction and Thimios Bakatakis’ cinematography give the film a surreal, otherworldly quality, but it’s the performances that sell it. All of the actors in the film are phenomenal. They submit to Lanthimos’ directing and give emotionless, idiosyncratic performances that many will find off-putting. You will frequently find yourself asking why these characters don’t care more about their predicament. There isn’t really a good answer to that question, but they are mesmerizing to watch. Farrell and Kidman, in their second team-up this year after Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, deliver their lines with a stilted coldness that sends chills up the spine. The younger actors are equally impressive, with Keoghan being the standout. He gives an eerie performance that you believe to be that of a psychopath before you realize he fits right in with the rest of the players. Alicia Silverstone even pops up for one madcap scene that will have you questioning why Hollywood doesn’t put her in more films.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer might make you laugh. It might make you angry. It will disturb you. It will scare you. You may hate it or you may love it, but one thing is for sure: you will want to talk about it the second the credits roll.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer had its North American premiere at Fantastic Fest and will receive a limited release from A24 on October 20, 2017.