MOVIE REVIEW: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

(Photo by Jima (Atsushi Nishijima), courtesy of A24)

(Photo by Jima (Atsushi Nishijima), courtesy of A24)


Celebrated Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos consistently demonstrates his preference, maybe even his demand, for a uniquely flat style of dialogue delivery from his on-screen performers.  Plain-speaking, low emotive, and less-than-minimal inflection is requested and applied to line readings of fragmented sentences bearing little change of cadence from the declarative and imperative to the interrogative and exclamatory.   With that prevailing tone, it becomes increasingly difficult for the audience to connect to characters and situations.  

Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer is deeply immersed in such dread.  As purposeful as that approach may be, it’s borderline unnatural and it throws you off.  Where the peril present in this psychological thriller should be raising heart rates, the slightness and dullness of its flatlined tone fail to move minds and elicit palpable responses.  Titillating ideas should titillate.  Resonating themes should resonate.  Neither occurs and madness takes over.

Lanthimos’ returning The Lobster lead Colin Farrell is the successful and well-to-do cardiovascular surgeon Stephen Murphy working in Cincinnati.  He is married to the beautiful and dutiful Anna (Farrell’s The Beguiled co-star Nicole Kidman) and they share two children, a blossoming teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy of Tomorrowland) and mop-topped pre-teen son Bob (newcomer Sunny Suljic).  After one of his patients dies on the table, the doctor seeks out the victim’s surviving teen son Martin, played by Dunkirk’s sacrificial lamb Barry Keoghan.

Like a stray puppy or a tree borer, Martin clings to the attention of the guilty Stephen, who tries to extend gifts and consolation to the young man.  Their increasingly frequent meetings and talks of minutiae, fraught with awkwardness and blurred lines, turn into an obsessive relationship that stretches to engulf their families, including Martin’s widowed and smitten mother (a long-lost Alicia Silverstone).  When Stephen tries to cease his involvement with Martin, a dark omen in the form of unexplained health consequences besets Stephen’s children, invisibly holds them captive and threatens their lives.

The curveball of this seemingly perverse curse carries a reference to the film’s title which cites the plight of Agamemnon from Euripides’ fifth-century play Iphigenia in Aulis.  Loosely adapting the Greek tragedy to a modern setting is a respectable feat for Yorgos Lanthimos and his fellow Oscar-nominated writing partner Efthymis Filippou.  The content is there and the production values are striking.  

Of particular note is the spying cinematography of Thimios Bakatakis, Lanthimos’ frequent collaborator.  His camera perches our view in corners and trails the tracks of our characters from behind, all at varying angles, creating a voyeuristic effect of a spectre haunting bearing still and silent witness to unsuspecting people.  Obtrusive beats of classical music dirge from the likes of Bach, Schubert, and Ligeti and pompous score cues by accordion player Janne Raettya stand as the second evocative trait of the film, one with a near Kubrickian nerve.

The visually symphonic ambiance is where the respectable engagement ends for The Killing of a Sacred Deer.  As aforementioned, the characters’ detachment leads to our own.  Their blankness is ours.  Any meandering paint of sunny mundanity or small bits of momentary parental love cannot cover the blackness.  Even when bursts of emotion from Farrell, Keoghan, and Kidman spike the needle of vocal timbre ever so slightly and rarely, the overall effect is bone-dry, cold, and extremely distant.  

Everything, even Greek tragedy, is attainable, but not everything is approachable.  The Killing of the Sacred Deer can merit respect for the courage to attempt such a drama.  “Getting it,” so to speak, and answering the “to what end” question is a whole other barometer of predicament and it is where the film fails.  The disturbing expressionlessness of this film fails to make the metaphors accessible beyond the route of pounding them against you with nihilism.

LESSON #1: PEOPLE THAT SMOKE ARE UP TO NO GOOD-- As a weird message in a nearly message-less movie, boy, don’t ever start the habit of smoking.  It’s a vice and symbolic activity of every guilty and lost moment in this film.  Talk about a calling card.

LESSON #2: EVERYONE HAS THEIR QUIRKS, KINKS, AND FETISHES-- Normalcy is, rightfully so for this content, entirely out the window for the characters of The Killing of the Sacred Deer.  Each character, young and old, has deeply seeded triggers and tendencies that stir their loins, behaviors, and relationships.

LESSON #3: DOCTORS HAVE REALLY NICE HANDS-- Stemming from the fetishes of Lesson #2 and the over-repetitive calling card analogies of Lesson #1, you get this farcically shallow final life lesson.  That’s your cherry-on-top takeaway.  A surgeon’s hands are their livelihood, their precious tools, and moneymakers.  That said, lifeless hands make lifeless choices as you will see in this film.