No one makes ‘em like Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek auteur/comedic sadist responsible for such cinephelic gems as Dogtooth and The Lobster. Taking much of the same human-as-reporters-of-fact Wes Anderson forthrightness and filtering it through a lens of awkward depravity, The Killing of a Sacred Deer follows pace with The Lobster, wherein singles mingled forcibly lest they be hunted down by a strictly coupled off society. This is something even more dark, otherworldly and delirious where coupledom proves a debilitating battle of wits and parents have little loyalty.
In this Lanthimos film, Collin Farrell already has a mate and two bright children but a supernatural force of nature, expressed through a mumbling, spectrum-hueing teenager named Martin (played to absolute perfection by Barry Keoghan) makes him atone for the mistakes of his past. What erupts is an absurd meditation on family politics, one that flips on its head the normative parent-child relationship. Riddled with sharp lashes of pitch black comedy and even darker dramatic turns, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a brutal examination of cosmic vengeance.
Part social horror film, part biting satire, part dark family drama, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a strange little gem; absolutely arresting cinema for the entirety of its 121 minutes even if it’s sure to have its share of haters. Posing a post-modern Sophie’s Choice in a brilliantly cruel manner, Deer is no easy watch. It thrives on the unsaid, revels in the unexplained. Some viewers will absolutely find Yorgos’ denial of hard facts frustrating, his hazy mythology maddening, but it’s perfectly clear to me that the underlying emotionality (or lack thereof) and moral hardship is what matters most here.
Farrell is Steven Murphy, a celebrated cardiologist three years sober. His wife Anna, an ophthalmologist turned stay at home mom, watches out for their two children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic), both of whom excel in school and extracurriculars in addition to being generally nice kids. The catalyst of the film is Martin (Keoghan), a simple, punctual black sheep teenager, exhibiting Asperger’s qualities and an odd view of the world and how it operates, whose odd tight-knit relationship with Steven proves a fascinating, funny and ultimately ghastly mystery as it flexes, transforms and manifests into something beyond description.
The way Keoghan chews through words is sublime, delivering each with a flat dullard’s monotone. Keoghan made an impression earlier this year in Dunkirk but shifts gears impressively here, hanging loose his bottom lip, staring out the tops of his eyes, staring characters down with a measure of adoration and simmering wrath. His every appearance is somehow both hilarious and deeply troubling. It is one of the finest performances of 2017.
Lanthimos quickly establishes that all the characters in Deer’s version of reality are, to put it kindly, inelegant in their candid approach to human interaction. For instance, when introducing his daughter, Steve reports, “This is my daughter Kim. She’s 14. She just had her first menstruation last week.” The speech is deadpan, little emotion poking through. In this particular moment, Kim displays no shame nor any sign that the blatant oversharing is anything out of the ordinary. Nor does anyone in Deer seem phased when characters state things best left whispered or in the shadows. When a character tells another his family will die, slowly, painfully, one by one, there is no outburst. Just a seething acceptance of fact.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is stuffed with duality. This is a world stripped of empathy and yet loaded with it, so much so in fact that an ET-esque plot erupts where characters become physically and emotionally tangled into a greater unified whole. They are able to understand and process each other’s pain, to sympathize even against their self interest and yet there is not an ounce of forgiveness present throughout the feature. It’s a film about the preservation of family where the only way to save one’s family is to fundamentally destroy it.
Martin proves both a sinister force and an understanding one, a cosmic harbinger of the yin and yang of larger-than-life presences. He exists somewhere between Hammurabi’s Code and Jesus Christ. Old Testament in execution, what unfolds is clued into the sharp disconnect between morality and justice. What is right and what is fair do not usually intersect and with Deer we’re witness to the fallout of man playing God and manufacturing “justice”. With the eye-for-an-eye sensibilities that churn through and fuel Deer, it’s almost as if Lanthimos is tipping his hat to the final image of The Lobster, again this theme of loss and family and how the two require one another.
A black orchestra of eerie sounds permeating the film – the caw of a bassoon, ominous choir voices, a solitary timpani pitching up and down – suggest a tangential universe; a reality wherein everything is more than slightly off-kilter; where right and wrong has been bucked from its axis and in its place this bizarro reality with its bizarro dynamics. The production design and cinematography, particularly a series of sanitized tracking shots chasing Steve down the tangle of florescently-lit hospital hallways, is pure horror film aesthetics, reminding me of a stripped down and sterilized Overlook Hotel, helping make the experience both dizzying and unearthly and utterly horrifying.
The performances across the board are fire. Nicole Kidman turns in a thoughtful but sinister, totally Oscar worthy performance as a twisted, self-interested force, her maternal instincts overrun by the predatory will to survive at any costs. Farrell is great as the torn surgeon at the center, acting through subtle facial reactions and the spare explosive outburst or two. He’s stunning in a jaw-dropping topsy-turvy moment at the tail end, an unforgiving, uncompromising scene that stains your mind with its violent, caustic depiction of the randomness of death. Both of the teenage children prove accomplished – fascinatingly transforming from recognizable kids to ethereal, metaphorical lambs happily lead to slaughter – but Keoghan is truly extraordinary. He gives a diatribe, his chin shiny with streaks of spaghetti sauce, about biological inheritance and the heartbreak of seeing that severed that will remain one of the most memorable acting moments of the year.
CONCLUSION: Like a demented and brilliant episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’, The Killing of a Sacred Deer posits a reality off its axis in elusive and dangerous ways. This pitch black dark comedy/familial parable defies easy explanation but with outstanding direction, top notch performances and a bevy of unsubtle nastiness creeping below the surface, it’s as memorable a movie experience as 2017 has to offer.