The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017)
For the record, I loved The Lobster, director Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous effort. Building on the tradition he had established in films like Alps and Dogtooth, he there brought his obsession with societies built on arcane systems of governance to glorious fruition in a mesmerizing tale anchored by a deliriously deadpan performance from Colin Farrell (Seven Psychopaths). Both Lanthimos and Farrell are back together again in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a movie that starts in a similar vein as its predecessor, the actor delivering lines in the same monotone as before, the camera tracking him in off-beat steadicam shots laden with cinematic meaning. Or not. As before, Lanthimos keeps us guessing, toying with our expectations of set-up and payoff. One thing is sure, however: the experience of watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer is deeply unpleasant. The question is: do we gain from it? Over a week after seeing the film, I’m still working on the answer.
This time around, Farrell plays Dr. Steven Murphy, a cardiologist married to a fellow doctor, Anna Murphy, played by the incomparable Nicole Kidman (The Beguiled). They have two kids, a boy and girl, and appear happily married, though quickly we are made to question their life together with the arrival of a mysterious teen boy, Martin, played by a very odd Barry Keoghan (’71). At first we think he is Steven’s son – perhaps from an affair – but when the riddle is solved the truth is even more disturbing. Steven has a score to settle, and the why and the how of his revenge is what eventually drives the plot. This being a Lanthimos film, there are rules to follow; ignore them and you die, though the reasons for everything are vague. Ultimately, the story boils down to this: what would you be prepared to do to save your family? What, or whom, would you sacrifice?
That’s a meaningful question. Put into practice, however, Steven’s response is difficult to stomach. I like that Lanthimos consistently pushes our buttons in a valiant attempt to provoke an emotional reaction, but I cannot say I enjoyed the experience of that reaction. The onscreen anguish of the characters may serve a narrative purpose, but it is something I can do without. Though brilliantly shot and cast, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, much like Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, released earlier this year, traffics in a kind of torture porn that risks losing itself in the act of self-flagellation. There is no denying its raw power, however. I may have been horrified, but I was not unmoved. Let’s leave it there, and you can judge whether the experience is worth it for you.