The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The close-up of a beating heart in an open chest cavity isn’t anywhere near the most disturbing image in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, although it sets an appropriate tone.

The latest from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) is a bizarre tale of guilt and revenge that’s both pretentious and provocative, a haunting character study that’s difficult to embrace but even harder to ignore.

It’s best not to reveal too many plot specifics, other than to say the film follows Steven (Colin Farrell), a renowned brain surgeon who befriends Martin (Barry Keoghan), an inquisitive teenage loner whose father was one of Steven’s patients.

We soon realize why Steven seems hesitant to bond with Martin, whose unassuming demeanor hides more sinister intentions aimed at Steven and his ophthalmologist wife (Nicole Kidman), as well as their two children — a young boy (Sunny Suljic) who contracts a mysterious ailment, and a daughter (Raffey Cassidy) who takes a romantic interest in the strange youngster.

For a hint as to how this plays out, the second half of the film draws parallels to the sacrificial travails of Agamemnon from the Euripedes tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis.

Deliberately paced yet consistently compelling, the strange and unsettling drama creates tension through cloudy motives, moral complexity, uneasy character dynamics, and an ominous orchestral score.

The film aggressively defies convention as secrets are gradually revealed, even sprinkling dark comedy amid the downward spiral for Steven and his family.

Lanthimos keeps his camera moving, often viewing the characters from a distance while favoring tracking shots through long hospital corridors. Combined with the formal and mannered dialogue, and the muted emotions, it intentionally prevents intimacy between the audience and characters. However, the characters and performances are so richly textured that it works anyway. Farrell is wonderfully understated while reteaming with Kidman so soon after The Beguiled.

The film becomes more far-fetched in terms of medical science, even embracing the absurdity in a job where anything short of perfection can have tragic consequences.

Thematically familiar but thrillingly unpredictable, the simmering result isn’t for all tastes. That would hardly bother Lanthimos, whose twisted audacity manifests itself through an exhilarating if polarizing creative vision.

 

Rated R, 121 minutes.

  • Aldous Atwood Orwell

    Killing a Sacred Deer succeeds as a parable (mostly about science and religion, with a nice subtext about closeted, self-hating homophobia) where Aronofsky’s mother! utterly fails; mother! is merely a collection of allusions with no central coherent allegory. Killing a Sacred Deer is a brutal mix of the lessons of both The Bacchae and Iphegenia, lessons which delve deeply into the inability of science and reason to grapple with tragedy in a world of guilt, obsession and sterile social conformity. The final chorus (perfectly suited to the final scene), from Bach’s St. John Passion, sums it all up nicely:

    Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm
    In allen Landen herrlich ist!
    Zeig uns durch deine Passion,
    Dass du, der wahre Gottessohn,
    Zu aller Zeit,
    Auch in der größten Niedrigkeit,
    Verherrlicht worden bist!

    Lord, our ruler, whose glory
    is magnificent everywhere!
    Show us through your passion,
    that you , the true son of God,
    at all times
    even in the most lowly state,
    are glorified.

    Lots of great details hinting at the religious themes are sprinkled throughout the film, the homophobic self-hatred subtext winds up coming to the top. The film is about a man unable to come to grips with his world view and his view of himself. The conclusion is perfect.