Review: The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

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Yorgos Lanthimos’ follow-up to 2016’s The Lobster is a quirky dark horror comedy riff on a classic Greek myth that, while entertaining, struggles to find a compelling narrative.

When Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, namechecks the Greek myth of Iphigenia, a tale of an sacrifice required so as to atone for the wrongs of another, it serves to establish a would-be narrative in the third act that up to that point seemed elusive to grasp at best. Lanthimos’ 2016 film The Lobster, set in a world of magical realism where humans became animals if not bound to a relationship within a months time, established him as a quirky indie film auteur in the vein of Wes Andersen with a distinct film and directorial flair. The Killing of a Sacred Deer continues to establish that reputation, with Colin Farrell playing James, a somewhat haunted cardiologist with a hidden past and clipped manner of speaking. James has seemingly befriended a young teen named Martin (Barry Keoghan of this summer’s excellent Dunkirk), a boy with a dark past whose relationship with James seems friendly, yet tense but somewhat forced at the same time. James introduces Martin to his family; his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and Anna and James’s kids, 12-year-old Bob (Sunny Suljic) and 14-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy). Bob is a cocky 12 year old who loves punk and metal and revels in keeping his hair long, while Kim is a seemingly angelic choir girl who is captivated by Martin’s other side of the tracks charm. James feels he has found a way to integrate his relationship with Martin alongside his family until Martin begins to demand more and more of James’ attention despite James’ reluctance to Martin’s entreaties. Suddenly, Bob takes ill and James is forced to question if this illness isn’t somehow Martin’s doing and, if so, what can he do to stop this siege on his family’s well-being.

On paper, The Killing of a Sacred Deer almost reads as a dark comedy meets horror/fantasy take on Cape Fear. Martin’s attitude towards James is much like that of Mitchum and DeNiro’s portrayals of Max Cady; he wants James to learn about the cost of loss and instill a divine sense of eye for an eye justice in his life. This jives with the myth of Iphigenia, a sacrifice required by the goddess Artemis of the Greek hero Agamemnon to atone for his killing of a deer sacred to her hunting grounds. The film’s score only serves to ratchet up the tension with haunting dissonant cues by Janne Raettya that keep the audience on edge. The film’s beautiful cinematography Thimios Bakatakis evokes the best of Kubrick’s oeuvre with distance and slow moving pans serving as a character to underscore the wide breaches present in the family’s relationships much like in The Shining and Eyes Wide Shot.

But while the ingredients for a taut, tense thriller are present in the DNA of the film, Lanthimos’ quirky directorial style and clipped artificial dialogue serve to cut that grounding out from the film. The film suffers a lack of narrative focus because the director’s ticks make dialogue that could be frightening or insane seem silly and laughter-inducing. As an audience member, its frustrating because you can see the artifice in the directing stops the film from being as fully realized as it is. Like many Wes Anderson films, it keeps the viewer at a distance from the world the characters are inhabiting; we see the seams and pulleys behind the stage veneer and its to the film’s disservice, especially one that has the potential to be as fascinating as this. The relationship between Ferrell and Keoghan’s characters seems born of something unspeakable, until it is waived away for a bizarre cameo from Alicia Silverstone as a widowed would be medical groupie of Ferrell’s who happens to be Martin’s mother. If she can brush away divine vengeance for a glimpse of James’ hands, it undercuts the narrative thrust behind Martin’s motivation in the film. As an audience member, you don’t want to pull on these strings, but the artifice and ticks of Lanthimos’ directing style don’t invite you into the veil of suspending your disbelief.

Overall, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a frustration in the fact that there are tremendous performances here with an interesting premise that just never feels all that compelling or realized. There is tension ratcheted with no payoff. While there are intense scenes that rival those in films such as Funny Games and The Strangers, there is no payoff. Barry Keoghan has a bright future in film here and he comes off the best in this enterprise, as does Kidman’s Anna, who plays a character lost in a palpable sense of ennui and dissatisfaction with her life. At the same time, the highly stylized nature of the film may appeal to filmgoers who’ve enjoyed Lanthimos’ other work and films like Park Chan-Wook’s Stoker. I enjoyed the dialogue and dark comedic scenes and will watch this again in the future, even though I feel the film is flawed, there’s enough good to make it a film worth investing in at least one viewing to see where your fortunes lie.

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