Film Review: The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

The cinematic world that Yorgos Lanthimos creates in his films can come off as aberrant to the uninitiated viewer. The monochromatic deadpan in which the dialogue is delivered bestows a robotic element unto the characters, which can prove difficult to an audience attempting to establish a connection with the story. However, this is precisely the awkward and ambiguous reaction that the filmmaker is trying to elicit in his artistic process. The Greek auteur came on to the scene in his native country due to the success of one of his first films, Dogtooth (2009). His follow ups include Alps (2011) and The Lobster (2015), the latter of which found the director transitioning into English as well as attracting Hollywood talent. Each film seems to intertwine between reality and fantasy, all the while seeking to make sense of some truth that is never meant to be found.

His newest project, The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) does just that. While having nothing to do with actual deer, Lanthimos uses his metapsychological approach and takes it to treacherous extremes, this time constructing an allegory of insidious proportions. Thematically based on the Greek myth of Iphigenia—where King Agamemnon is forced to sacrifice his own daughter to repay the Gods after he kills a deer belonging to Artemis, the Goddess of the Hunt—this film focuses on justice through mutual suffering. In Lanthimos’ world, nobody wins or strives to win, they just want to hurt less. Victory isn’t associated with happiness, therefore nobody seeks to be happy, they just seek to understand any situation given the circumstances. The problem lies in that they operate as logical beings living in an illogical universe, where some things happen without any reasonable explanation.

The film stars a Lanthimos alum in Colin Farrell (The Lobster) as successful heart surgeon, Steven Murphy, living a seemingly idyllic lifestyle in his pristine mansion with his beautiful wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), and two kids, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). The hospital he works at also embodies such an immaculate presentation, equipped with sparkling white corridors and the latest technology, and we are made sure to notice it through the elegant camerawork of Thimios Bakatakis. Having partnered together on previous films (i.e. Dogtooth, The Lobster), Bakatakis clearly holds a strong chemistry with Lanthimos and it’s put on beautiful display here. The abundance of perfect shots and smooth sweeps emphasizes the idea of a flawless world where nothing goes awry. However, we soon find out that there are more sinister motives at play and the ultra-clean cinematography and set design work to contrast with the plot and character development.

Along with saving lives, raising a family, and sustaining a happy marriage, Steven has also taken an awkward teenager under his wing by the name of Martin (Barry Keoghan). The origin of their relationship is hazy from the start but nonetheless, and by way of Lanthimos-style small talk, Steven mentors Martin on the ways of the world. The fact that Martin’s father passed away under Steven’s hand during surgery is soon revealed and it seems that Steven feels badly about this, in his own unique way. Also when Martin surprises him at the hospital, Steven lies to a colleague about his relationship with the boy. Steven takes pride in what he does and he isn’t ready to accept the mishap as a fault of his own, but without taking the blame he begins spending a lot of time with Martin as a way to ease the blow. However, it’s almost like he’s doing it more for himself then for Martin, who almost desperately requests his presence on a daily basis.

The emotionless and alienated tone is harmless at first, as seasoned viewers recall the atmosphere of previous Lanthimos works—who is again joined by his writing partner Efthymis Filippou (Dogtooth, Alps, The Lobster) in crafting this unique diegesis. However, things soon begin to take a turn for the worst when Steven’s children are struck with a sudden illness of serious magnitude. Their condition is never pointedly explicated but Martin has something to do with it. Without warning, Steven becomes trapped in some kind of ‘fait accompli’ where his ego must be put to the test. Farrell, as another former working partner of Lanthimos, plays his part to the utmost excellence. Unlike the protagonist he plays in The Lobster, he’s less of a sullen commoner and more of a pompous elitist. As a heart surgeon, he enjoys the sensation of playing God. With that privilege, he in a sense has become invincible.  However, Martin becomes the true ringleader as the narrative progresses. Although it’s never clear the exact role he embodies in the plan that unfolds, either maestro or messenger, the upper hand belongs to him.

As the tension heightens, thunderous jolts of music enter the void to match the intensity and crack the dull milieu. Bakatakis and his haunting camera holds tight in mysterious corners and creeps behind Steven as he contemplates his next move. Keoghan is exemplary as Martin, and Bakatakis uses a multitude of extreme close ups to hone in on the intricacies of his face. As an ambiguous character, both innocent and masterfully treacherous, he carries a vital weight in his adolescent facade—his twitching movements hinting at a hidden evil as much as social discomfort. This, of course, all stems from Lanthimos’ brilliance as a director and the unique style he brings to the table. The monotonous droning of dialogue, the unprovoked forwardness of the small talk, the coalescence of fantasy and reality, their all traits perfected by the Greek auteur. Perhaps brought on by the fragility of Greece in its current moment, this new Greek wave of cinema is seemingly just as unsettling as the country’s economic and social state. From diminishing budgets come expanding imaginations, and a variation of emotions can be engendered from these creations. One can be laughing at a line of dialogue then horrified by the very next action. Lanthimos would embrace each reaction as a unique and correct response. Not everything is meant to add up.

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