The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

  • Time: 121 min
  • Genre: Drama | Horror | Mystery
  • Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
  • Cast: Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Alicia Silverstone

Storyline:

Steven, a charismatic surgeon, is forced to make an unthinkable sacrifice after his life starts to fall apart, when the behavior of a teenage boy he has taken under his wing turns sinister.

3 comments

  • It takes a Greek director — Yorgos Lanthimos — to revive the elemental power of Greek tragedy in a modern setting.
    Because this is such a primal story it could be the most powerful and disturbing film of the year. The characters speak in a kind of dead tone, usually on banal matters (like how waterproof a watch is). The music alternates eerie silences with harsh nerve-wracking strings and drums. Shots of surgery and blood churn the stomach. The widescreen settings have an amphitheatrical stretch. Alone among recent films, it sends you out in catharsis — “calm of mind, all passion spent.” This film releases you, drained.
    A man’s misdeed brings down a curse upon his entire house that only his own immense sacrifice can expiate. That’s the Greek tragedy, beside which our mundane stories of simple guilt, rationalization, mercy, forgiveness, and even human justice — the business of cops and courts — dwindle into insignificance.
    This primitive drama involves a heart surgeon Steven Murphy and his ophthalmologist wife Anna. That is, the elemental force erupts in the seat of modern science, rationalism, humanity. The professional curers are profoundly afflicted. Their reason is helpless, irrelevant, once the old pagan gods have been stirred to ire.
    Dr Murphy was at least tipsy when his bungled surgery cost a man’s life. Murphy has not openly accepted responsibility or expressed his guilt. But he did attend the man’s funeral and stop drinking altogether. He also befriended the man’s orphaned son Martin, whom he buys gifts and offers friendship as a sop to confronting his own guilt on any deeper level.
    Now Martin swells from orphaned son into preternatural agent of vengeance. For his father’s death has proved a curse on his house too. He and his mother — in different ways — crave Dr Murphy to replace the dead man in their lives: “My mom’s attracted to you. She’s got a great body.”
    This thuggish kid has an other-worldly understanding. He has become the seer, the oracle who alone fathoms the root cause of the Murphy curse and its resolution. If Murphy doesn’t kill one of his children, his entire family will die. First they are paralyzed, deprived of appetite and will, then their eyes erupt in Oedipusian bleed, then they die.
    Of course these modern sophisticates deny this savage myth. Murphy in particular blames Martin for the curse he has only reported. Daughter Kim understands, because she wrote a paper on Iphygenia, Agamemnon’s daughter whom he has to sacrifice to atone for having killed a sacred deer.
    Kim is attracted to Martin and offers herself to him. In him she senses a worldliness apart from the others. Having initially assumed kid brother Bob would go (“Can I have your MP3 when you die?) she then volunteers to be Dr Murphy’s sacrifice. She knows the story.
    The Murphys’ life is characterized by a kind of torpor. No-one has any zest for anything. The conversations are banal and wary. Dr Murphy and then Kim report her first period as if it were a head cold. All sense of the primeval has been lost. Anna feigns total anesthesia for her sex with her husband. His friend and anesthesiologist charges Anna a hand job for info.
    Facing the curse Steven tries coaxing, coercion, threats, even physical violence and the threat of murder, to shake the seer off his vision. Steven turns to a school counsellor for advice on which child to pick. Anna twigs to their predicament: “Our children are dying, but yes. I can make you mashed potatoes.” She marshals the will to free Martin from her husband’s futile abuse.
    Indeed both the doctor and the anesthesiologist each blame the other for failures in the operating room. This is the modern world with advanced science and culture but with stupefied emotions and a shallow sense of responsibility. Dr Murphy forbids smoking in the house, but his wife and daughter smoke outside. Martin accepts his recent addiction with the same resignation he seems to have accepted as his role of messenger from the gods, to bring Murphy to their harsh justice.
    This elemental tragedy is the prophet director’s harsh judgment on a world that evades its guilt and responsibility by suspending all conscience, all sense of a higher purpose than the mundane and worldly. The modern news cycle allows no time for the eternal.

  • (RATING: ☆☆ out of 5 stars)

    GRADE: C-

    THIS FILM IS NOT RECOMMENDED.

    IN BRIEF: A contrived updating of a family in crisis that fails due to bad writing and absurd situations.

    SYNOPSIS: Using Greek mythology as its source, a father must make an ultimate sacrifice.

    RUNNING TIME: 2 hrs., 1 mins.

    JIM’S REVIEW: Oh, those Greeks and their tragedies! They love to wallow in guilt and despair. That avant-garde wonder boy, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, is upon us with his latest sojourn into absurd irony, The Sacred Killing of a Sacred Deer. His independent film tries to connect the legend of Iphigenia with a modern day family (a lofty goal), and fails miserably, despite the mostly positive reviews that this movie is garnering. (For those unaware with that mythological storyline, let me digress: King Agamemnon is punished by the vengeful goddess, Artemis, for accidentally killing a deer. To appease the gods, he must choose to sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia, to end his curse.)

    This allegorical film unfolds, ever so slowly, in its tale of crime and punishment. Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) befriends a confused teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan). His motive and also Martin’s behavior are bizarre from the start and we learn more of their true connection about a half hour into the film when the plot finally kicks in. No spoilers here, although it is quite tempting to reveal some details if that will persuade you to avoid this Trojan Horse. (But I resist, nevertheless.)

    Up to this point, moviegoers suffer more than the film’s poorly drawn characters. Enduring the flattest of line readings and listening to the endless banalities spoken in the most unbelievable dialog one could ever experience in any motion picture, the film piles on more surreal circumstances with the good doctor as his family’s health conditions worsen, with no possible explanation given.

    Now let me share a few prime examples of the film’s bons mots:

    “If you don’t stop playing games, I will shave your head and make you eat your hair. I mean it. I will make you eat your hair.”

    “I won’t let you leave until you try my tarts.”

    “Our children are dying, and yes, I can make you some mashed potatoes.”

    Definitely a food fetish somewhere, but let’s move on…

    It should be noted that the cast performs their roles with some semblance of credibility. Mr. Farrell, a talented actor who is unafraid to take risks, is misdirected to act cold and emotionless for most of the film. It creates an unreal tone that undercuts the dramatic potential of his character and the story itself. The actor finally is allowed to react in the third act and he is most effective. Mr. Keoghan is impressive and supplies the perfect foil as a nerdy yet menacing avenger. Nicole Kidman adds depth to a standard grieving mother part. As their children, Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic give respectable performance from the dreck they are handed by the director and his co-writer, Efthymis Filippou. But it is really Mr. Lanthimos who disappoints with his words and actions. (However, he does wisely lets cinematographer, Thimios Bakatakis aim his camera and create some strong visual images that almost hide the film’s flaws…almost.)

    Metaphors and heavy-handed symbolism runs rampant amid conversation about menstruation, expensive watches, and donuts. Gratuitous nudity is also thrown in as a wake-up call for any dozing members of the audience. (Lest we question this already wonky plot and the direct inspiration of Iphigenia, the director includes a scene mentioning the A+ grade Kim earned from her report on that very topic…subtle, it’s not.) All of this outrageousness leads to a unsatisfying climax and a very dramatic but polarizing denouncement.

    That said, let me now succinctly go into the C- grade this film earned from this reviewer. (Alas, if only Kim wrote the screenplay as well!) The film has adequate production values, serviceable direction, very bad dialog, a far-fetched plot, and a fine cast that is trapped in a laughable script.

    Yes, sacrifices will be made, but mostly by the moviegoing audience as they waste their precious time and hard-earned money on this dud. The Sacred Killing of a Deer is intellectually and emotionally inert. As revenge thrillers go, this artsy-fartsy misfire proves that the gods (and the filmmakers) must be crazy.

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  • The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Yorgos Lanthimos’ follow-up to his brilliant pitch-black romantic fable The Lobster, begins with a matter-of-fact shot of a human heart as it undergoes surgery soon followed by a surgeon peeling off his blood-stained latex gloves and throwing it in the bin. A doctor, it must be remembered, shall always have blood on his hands, whether literally or metaphorically, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer marries this notion to the myth of Iphigenia to create a deeply unsettling film of methodical revenge and foredoomed sacrifice.

    Lanthimos presents Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a cardiologist with an ophthalmologist wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), a 14-year-old daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) who just started menstruating, and a 12-year-old son Bob (Sunny Suljic), seemingly unremarkable to his father save for his hair, which Steven wishes he would cut. There’s mention of Steven’s past alcoholism, though he’s gone without a drop for the past three years, his sobriety most likely due to Anna’s watchful eye. The couple’s sex life is active, though the aphrodisiac is unusual: “General anaesthetic?” Anna asks before lying supine on their bed for Steven to masturbate to her unconscious form before resuscitating her with far more probing methods.

    So what to make of Martin (Barry Keoghan), the 16-year-old with whom Steven conducts somewhat secretive rendezvous? They meet in diners or by the riverside (one shot strongly recalls Hitchcock’s Vertigo) or at the hospital, though the time and location is almost always set by Steven. The nature of their relationship is tantalisingly teased until details reveal that Steven feels an obligation to this boy whose father died on his operating table. He invites Martin to his home (“Such a nice boy,” Anna notes; Kim, smitten, would agree); Martin, in turn, gratefully welcomes him to his far more humble home where his mother (Alicia Silverstone, wonderful in a small role) exacerbates Steven’s unease with unwelcome advances (“I won’t let you leave until you’ve tried my tart!”).

    Then, almost suddenly but perceptibly, the tenor of Steven and Martin’s relationship changes. “That critical moment we both knew would come someday – here it is…” Martin announces to Steven after Bob inexplicably becomes paralysed. As Steven destroyed his family by killing his father during surgery, he must redress the situation by sacrificing one of his own. If Steven fails to make a choice then, one by one, his family will become paralysed, lose the will to eat, and then bleed from their eyes before dying. Lose one or lose all, tick tock tick tock.

    If Lanthimos’ work is characterised by a deadpan absurdity, then The Killing of a Sacred Deer finds that hallmark at its most extreme and ruthless. More serious in tone than The Lobster, though not without comic frissons, the film is a horror film that shreds the nerves with its calm and impassivity. Lanthimos injects grand guignol flourishes, most empathically in the soundtrack (featuring works by Bach, Schubert, and Ligeti) but also in many of its images, which sear the brain and poison the bloodstream: blood dripping from Bob’s eyes, Martin sinking his teeth into his own flesh, or the bloodless but bloodcurdling scene in which a hooded Steven takes blind shots at his family, each of whom are bound, gagged, hooded, and utterly terrified.

    It’s safe to say that, like his previous works, The Killing of the Sacred Deer will not be to everyone’s tastes. As per the Lanthimos style, the humour is morbid, the savagery is sedate, the brutality becalmed and is all the more heightened because of it. Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis composes scenes of glacial magnificence that are tenaciously inconsolable. A dreamlike, otherworldly quality pervades, the type where one seems to be in slow motion and where foreboding envelops even the most mundane word or gesture. There’s a constant sense that events unfold under a divinity’s dispassionate gaze.

    The actors are uniformly superb, but particularly outstanding are Keoghan and Kidman. The former is akin to a sprite bearing bad tidings, whilst the latter is impeccably commanding, her face both affectless yet expressing multitudes as the camera holds her in its merciless grasp.

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