The Killing of a Sacred Deer, 2017.
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.
Starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Bob Camp, and Alicia Silverstone.
A highly successful surgeon takes a teenage boy under his wing. But the boy’s behaviour turns sinister and the surgeon’s life starts to fall apart.
Beware, as they say, Greeks bearing gifts. Or, in this case, Greeks bearing myths. And when that Greek happens to be director Yorgos Lanthimos, you know you’re in for an experience like no other. Dark, stylised and, in the case of his latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, surprisingly funny and beautiful.
It is, nonetheless, a modern riff on a Greek tragedy, with affluent surgeon Steven (Colin Farrell) enjoying all the trappings of his success and then having to pay a higher price for them than he could ever have imagined. His beautiful wife (Nicole Kidman), his two children, their pristine home, the lot. All at the hands of teenager Martin (Barry Keoghan), a recent friend and somebody for whom he buys expensive presents. Their connection is kept under wraps for some time, but eventually it’s clear that Martin believes the surgeon owes him big time. And he’s going to get what he wants.
This being Lanthimos, this isn’t just a simple tragedy. It goes hand in hand with one of its favourite partners, revenge, and it’s a morality tale. And more. From its opening sequence, the vivid close up of an operation on a beating heart, it’s a visually dazzling piece of cinema. And a deeply thought-provoking one, especially when it questions whether the doctor – and the medical profession as a whole – is playing God with patients’ lives. Playing with us for sport, as it were. Repeated conversations on the subject mean it’s never far from front of mind. No surgeon ever kills his patient, we’re told, and it’s a surgeon who says it, but we’re also told that an anaesthesiologist can. And then somebody in that profession tells us that they can’t. Nobody ever takes responsibility. It’s only towards the end that Farrell starts to shift his position, with bleak and tragic consequences.
The home in which Farrell and his family live is almost as clinical and sterile as his working environment. But most stylised of all is the extraordinary dialogue, which is designed to create distance, not engagement, between the people on the screen. It’s brittle, flat, often spoken in a monotone and the things that are actually said are equally surprising. Like when Farrell tells somebody that his daughter is 14 – and she’s just started menstruating. Yet nobody bats an eyelid at the incongruity of it all.
Lanthimos has assembled a cast with depth, headed by now-regular collaborator Farrell, who has shown a real taste for the dark side in his most recent roles, such as The Beguiled for Sofia Coppola. Barry Keough has graduated from his small role in Dunkirk to the pivotal one for this film, the catalyst, and one with barely concealed rage constantly simmering away just below the surface. His mother is perfectly played in one critical scene by Alicia Silverstone, while he uses Raffey Cassidy as Farrell’s daughter as a means to revenge. She impressed in Disney’s ill-fated Tomorrowland, had a small role in Allied and now leaps forward into a role closer to adulthood and which demands more of her.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer may be a morality tale, but it’s a barbed one. Your sympathy isn’t with either Martin or Steven: if it’s with anybody, it’s with the two children who suffer for their father’s actions, and especially the daughter who is also targeted by the obsessed Martin. While sympathy isn’t easy to place, there’s no effort in being both fascinated and absorbed by a striking piece of cinema, one that mixes horror, humour and beauty, but which never loses its grip.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is screened at the 61st London Film Festival on October 13th and 15th and released in cinemas on November 3rd.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Freda Cooper. Follow me on Twitter.