06th Nov2017

‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Raffey Cassidy, Barry Keoghan, Sunny Suljic | Written by Efthymis Filippou, Yorgos Lanthimos | Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos


Having made a name for himself with weird-yet-accessible black satires like Dogtooth (and its sort-of-sequel Alps) and The Lobster, Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos remains true to form with his sophomore English-language effort, which reunites him with Colin Farrell.

This time, Farrell is cast slightly closer to type, as handsome surgeon Steven Murphy. He goes home each night to an ostensibly perfect family: wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and son Bob (Sunny Suljic). One day, Steven brings home his young friend Martin (Barry Keoghan), the son of one of his patients, who died in surgery two years ago. Steven and Martin are close. Steven has become a kind of father figure. Or possibly a cool, rich uncle. But Martin has sinister plans for Steven and his family.

At this point, the film turns from tense, uneasy thriller to existential horror. Martin basically curses the Murphy clan. The deal is that each member of the family will die a slow, painful death, unless Steven chooses to kill one of them outright, in recompense for the death of Martin’s father. It’s like Sophie’s Choice, via David Cronenberg.

The script could, on the surface, be straight out of a 1990s stalker thriller. But imagine all that cornball dialogue delivered entirely objectively, and you get what Lanthimos is going for. It is a genre piece, except shot through with a truly weird and unsettling sensibility.

Verboten themes come thick and fast: psychosomatic paralysis; terminal illness; child sexuality; infanticide – you name it. There’s Todd Solondz-level inappropriate verbal interaction between parents and kids. The taboo gauge goes off the scale at the point where Steven trades secrets with his prepubescent son, and the secret he chooses to divulge involves a sexual encounter with his own father.

It’s funny in a deliberately discomforting way. Lanthimos paints the complacency of the Murphys in broad strokes: people as automations. Yet the blandness of their exchanges is tinged with an underlying menace. Sounds and images usually disguised in cinema are precisely captured: skin brushing skin and mouth sounds, and naturalistic lighting which brings out every blemish. Music is texture, often atonal and formless; a screeching wheezebox or a shivering, broken accordion.

I love Lanthimos’ tendency to enter a scene at its peak dramatic point – a nude man in a shower, say, or a child weeping blood – before letting the scenario play itself to mundanity, exiting at the moment of minimum drama. It creates an unusual, addictive rhythm. Later, the editing shuffles around the temporal order of things, reflecting the growing mania that has gripped the family.

That mania is a kind of fanaticism. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is partly about how powerful things we can’t explain lead to fanatical beliefs, which in turn cause us to do irrational evil. The theme of a whole family pushed to extremes by powers beyond their ken is reminiscent of The Witch. Like Robert Eggers’ film, the elder daughter plays a key role. She admires Martin’s power – which is both disabling and enabling – right to the end, regardless of morality. After all, to be like God is to be beyond morality.

The parents aren’t godlike. Faced with impossible decisions, their weaknesses are revealed. The power Steven and Anna imagined they had over their children – and over each other – turns out to be illusory, and the conditions of their love is laid horribly bare. Just as Lanthimos questioned romance and monogamy in The Lobster, here he questions the myth of the unbreakable nuclear family.

The film ends with an almost unwatchable sequence of Michael Hanekean horror, scratchily scored with Penderecki-like strings. It climaxes a film of a slow-burning intensity, whose savage satire and cynicism will be a chore for some. But for those who enjoy their horror movies absurd, grotesque and incessantly taboo-baiting, it’s a genuinely unusual, and highly recommended, cinematic experience.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is out in cinemas now.


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