Genre: Psychological Horror/Drama
Running Time: 120 mins
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Bill Camp & Alicia Silverstone
(Queen’s Film Theatre Press Screenings)
Steven, a charismatic surgeon, is forced to make an unthinkable sacrifice after his life starts to fall apart when the behavior of a teenage boy he has taken under his wing turns sinister.
The Killing Of A Sacred Deer opens with a pulsating, beating heart mid-surgery and it holds on that image for an inordinately long amount of time. And that’s kind of the point: The scene functions as a microcosm of the movie insofar as it’s a dare to the audience to keep looking, to see how long you can keep your eyes on the screen before you turn away in revulsion. Also, it could be the director’s way of telling us, the brave viewer, that we’re really nothing more than pieces of sentient meat (thanks, Rust Cohle!).
Yorgos Lanthimos’s second collaboration with Colin Farrell (after 2015’s weirdly wonderful The Lobster) is a tough sell in many ways. But in another more simplistic way, if you liked The Lobster, you’ll probably quite like The Killing Of A Sacred Deer but just don’t expect a comfortable journey. This is the ride in the theme park that you’ve been warned about; the one that makes you really dizzy, then you start to like it but then you get really dizzy again and now you really want it to stop.
Much like The Lobster, an interesting world has been built that somewhat resembles our own but instead of a dystopian society where singletons get turned into animals, we have a world where it’s as simple and natural to tell people in polite conversation that your daughter has started menstruating as it is to put a curse on someone.
There’s no haunted magical box, no offensive representations of the gypsy community and no ancient Indian burial ground (is that a racist movie trope or a hack one or both???); just a creepy teen laying out in plain English that he’s cursed your family – although I don’t think the word “curse” is ever used. Farrell’s character is told that his wife and kids are going to lose the ability to walk, followed by the refusal of food and then they are going to bleed from their eyes and soon after they will die.
The bluntly delivered dialogue from The Lobster carries over in The Killing Of A Sacred Deer– and once again it is exquisitely executed by Farrell – but whatever sweetness was in The Lobster is nowhere to be found here as Farrell plays Steven, a heart surgeon, who has an unusual relationship with a teenager named Martin (a deeply disturbing Keoghan). At first it seems like he’s a mentor or father figure of sorts to Martin but there’s something not quite right about this relationship. The same could be said for Steven’s relationship with his wife (a sublime Nicole Kidman) and specifically their unorthodox sex life.
Things hit the fan for Steven, his wife and two kids when we find out that Martin holds Steven responsible for the death of his father when Steven failed to save him during surgery. Steven may have been under the influence of alcohol during the surgery, we’re never quite sure. To balance things out, Martin says Steven has to kill a member of his own family and if he doesn’t, well, the ole losing the ability to walk, bleed from your eyes curse will kick in.
In the hands of another filmmaker I would have zero interest in something like this but with Lanthimos, we have this weird, twisted and very deeply, darkly funny tale that doesn’t easily slot into the horror or even supernatural horror film genre. There is very little violence or gore but it’s not a comedy either.
Things are presented so coldly and precisely, it feels more like a waking nightmare at times; then it has some laugh out loud moments; one in particular, about a deeply inappropriate anecdote of an early adolescent foray into sexuality, stands out.
It is a gorgeously shot (by another Lanthimos regular, Thimios Bakatakis) film that throws up some incredibly pretty visuals but it serves to jar the audience even further because what happens to the characters is so bleak.
I have a difficult time in trying to concisely sum up what this film is about. There’s a Kubrickian chilliness to the way Lanthimos directs, from the shot selection to those slow (and unnerving at times) tracking shots that feel like they’re leading you deeper and deeper into some dark dream you can’t wake up from.
Watching this film is like listening to the new Fever Ray album at full volume and dropping acid in a room full of mirrors. Not a horrible experience per say but not something you would want to do again.
Perhaps the truth of the film lies in a scene near the end between Farrell and Kidman when she pummels Farrell’s character by calling him out for how hollow and unfeeling he is when he nonchalantly requests her to make him mashed potatoes while their children are dying in another room. It’s a brilliant scene that functions so as to reorient our perspective of Farrell’s character.
Because we’ve been following Farrell’s comically insipid character for most of the film, we’ve become disconnected by proxy and Kidman’s pointed takedown of Farrell is maybe a takedown of us, the viewer. Or perhaps it’s a warning?
I’m genuinely not sure what that warning might be; it could be about how the disconnection from guilt and shame can leave us incomplete somehow, that without these things we’re nothing more than fleshy automatons.
Or given the Greek nature of the play it could be as simple as the world isn’t fair but we do get to control how to respond to that unfairness and perhaps that’s the point?
Either way, you will not forget The Killing Of A Sacred Deer in a hurry.
A sinister, disturbing tale from Yorgos Lanthimos that will linger long in the memory as will Colin Farrell’s stellar performance. Catch this with a room full of people while you can.