(2017—Director: Yorgos Lanthimos)
(out of 5 stars)
Stage #1: Paralysis of the Legs
Stage #2: Refusal to Eat or Drink
Stage #3: Bleeding from the Eyes
Stage #4: Death
“The most important thing in life is to have good friends, not lots of friends.” — Martin (Barry Keoghan) to Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell)
Potential spoilers below
When non-American directors shift from films spoken in their native tongue to films spoken mostly in English, their narrative signatures often get diluted to avoid a loss in translation and the quality of their work tends to dip. Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos breaks this trend. After his disturbing, Oscar-nominated 2009 drama Dogtooth and 2011’s Alps, Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou made the jump to English-language films with 2015’s absurdist dystopian black comedy The Lobster, which received an Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay. I did not love The Lobster when I saw it, finding it a bit sparse and feeling a loss of momentum after Colin Farrell leaves the hotel around its midpoint. Nevertheless, The Lobster’s dystopian future where society forces its single members to either find a partner or get transformed into animals was both novel and relevant. Now confident in English-language cinema, Lanthimos, Filippou, and Lobster star Colin Farrell turn from foretelling a dark future to the poetry and menace of a modern-day Greek tragedy with The Killing of a Sacred Deer. If this film meant to send sharp and lingering chills down my spine, then it has succeeded.
Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell, The Beguiled, The Lobster, Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them) is a cardiovascular surgeon’s surgeon. He has a loving nurse wife in Anna (Nicole Kidman, The Beguiled, Lion) and two loving children, Kathy (Raffey Cassidy, Tomorrowland) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). Their large house is as spotless as his workplace. Steven’s life, however coldly clinical, is perfect. Steven has also befriended Martin (Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk), a fatherless teenager with an eccentric personality. Steven introduces Martin to his family and a connection sparks between Martin and Kathy. Still, Martin’s eccentricity disturbs Steven’s family. Then, one morning soon after, Bob finds that he cannot move his legs, so his parents take him to the hospital. Steven and Anna visit him the next morning, only to find Martin visiting as well. Martin has a message for Steven—a message he had ready since the day he first met the doctor. It is a message warning the doctor of what shall come to his family should he fail in the coming days to make up for a past mistake.
A life for a life.
Writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou have crafted one of the most bizarre, traumatic, and tantalizing film experiences of 2017. The two land a Kubrickian balance between the psychological terrors of Get Out and the oppressive atmosphere of Mother! and The Beguiled (which also stars Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman). Lanthimos further heightens these elements through Thimios Bakatakis’ detached yet pristine cinematography and Yorgos Mavropsaridis’ suspenseful editing. Having worked together for nearly two decades, this trio behind the camera can only strengthen their artistic chemistry with each new project (which, unfortunately, will not include The Favorite, Lanthimos’ next film). Another promising bond is the sophomore pairing of Lanthimos and Irish actor Colin Farrell, whose deadpan everyman guided willing viewers through The Lobster’s off-putting dystopia. Farrell and Nicole Kidman embody the controlling and perfectionist parents caught in a life-threatening dilemma with rock-solid conviction.
Beyond the sturdy turns by Farrell and Kidman, breakout star Barry Keoghan leaves an astounding and Oscar-worthy impression. Keoghan is unhinged, deceptive, and utterly captivating as the eccentric Martin. Like his Georgie from Dunkirk, Keoghan’s Martin has insinuated himself into an improper situation. Yet while the naïve Georgie in Dunkirk jumps onto the private boat seeking to become a local war hero, Martin in The Killing of a Sacred Deer deals in fate and revenge. The film leads audiences into pitying Martin in his weirdness first before growing conflicted between his helpless façade and his deep-seated malevolence. Keoghan gives Detroit’s Will Poulter a run for his money when it comes to the most slimy and conniving villains of cinema in 2017. It would be an utter shame if discussions on the best male supporting performances of 2017 fail to include Barry Keoghan’s Martin.
Aside from the needless lingering on a few instances of sordid sexuality (see Parental Note below), my biggest misgiving about Lanthimos’ psychological horror-thriller is how it confines poor Alicia Silverstone (Clueless) to just one scene as Martin’s unnamed mother. In her scene (shared with Farrell and Keoghan), Lanthimos and Filippou’s screenplay characterizes her as docile and airheaded and Silverstone captures those traits well. While including more of Silverstone may have threatened to overfill a sharp script, it would have added an extra twist or two into the reasons and factors that play into Martin’s revenge quest. Silverstone’s short screentime is also a letdown from the viewpoint of her overall career. Ever since 1997’s Batman & Robin undid the creative buzz generated from her iconic turn in 1995’s Clueless, Silverstone has struggled to regain artistic traction. If she seeks a career resurgence a la fellow Batman & Robin co-star and current NCIS: Los Angeles lead Chris O’Donnell, it will take more than a one-scene dip into arthouse fare.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer admittedly does not reach as highly on the scale of societal relevance as The Lobster. It does, however, prove that the Lanthimos touch succeeds in delivering complex and absurd black comedies as well as simple but twisted and amplified thrills. The Killing of a Sacred Deer leaves you horrified, disgusted, breathless, and stunned in the theater, so much so that a theater attendant might have to tap you on the shoulder to remind you that the film’s credits have long since faded.
(Parental Note: The Killing of a Sacred Deer has been rated R by the MPAA “for disturbing violent and sexual content, some graphic nudity, and language.” It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for “strong violence, sex,” and “nudity”. A lasting shot of a beating heart undergoing surgery opens the film. Later, a woman strips naked and reclines on a bed while a man lying nearby masturbates for a few moments. He then approaches to lie on top of her before the scene ends. In another scene, a woman pleasures a man by hand in a car underneath an overpass. The act is kept just off-screen, but the audio is explicit and the camera lingers on the woman until the deed is done. Later, a man bites off a piece of his arm and that of another man standing nearby.)