The Killing of a Sacred Deer (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017) – Dr Steven Murphy is forced into making an unthinkable sacrifice when his secrets invite danger to his family.
An unbroken air of malaise assails all senses in Yorgos Lanthimos’ retelling of an ancient tragic myth.
An open heart operation sets the scene as the stranger’s organ pulsates in discomforting proximity. Post-surgery, Dr Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) disposes of his bloody gloves, then heads to a diner to meet Martin (Barry Keoghan), an orphaned teenager whom he has taken under his wing and formed a close bond with.
Back at home with his picture-perfect family, his time at the hospital is mostly left unspoken. His wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) knows nothing about Martin, whose relationship with the surgeon remains a vexing puzzle, until the kid reveals his hold over her husband.
To give away anything more feels almost sacrilegious to Yorgos Lanthimos’ vision. It is the unexpected turn of events that make his latest work such an intriguing watch, where the unsettling truth is as irrational as it is conceivable.
Inspired by Greek tragic myth Iphigenia, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is essentially a 21st century folklore that meditates on the meaning of sin and retribution. Symbolism is aplenty in every purposeful action, expression, and word.
As the eponymous incident builds up to a seemingly otherworldly fallout, the ploy of vengeance embroils innocents – Steven’s family, including his children Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic), who know nothing about his transgression. What transpires next is necessary to be experienced first-hand than told.
Bizarre as the story is in the modern context, it raises difficult questions on the ownership of responsibility in a fatal moment of mistake. The building pressure of impossible ultimatums also effectively cautions on the extremities of vengeance.
Never shying away from the unpleasant, Lanthimos returns to his roots in arthouse horror, as in his earlier work Dogtooth. His frequent collaborator Thimios Bakatakis proves quintessential to his stylistic ambitions. Designed to unsettle, his cinematography emanates a constant cold detachment. The ominous air implied echoes Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Lynn Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, smothering with its mere intensity.
Much of the powerful atmosphere owes to Barry Keoghan, who plays the troubled boy to brilliant ambiguity. An almost superficial charm defines Martin’s polite demeanour, which emanates disquiet in his scripted monotony. Malevolence gradually builds, arising in his manipulative acts that ebb away at the innocence of his past.
Add to that the bold strokes of screenwriters Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, whose tragic play stirs up an ill feeling that persists. This is by no means easy to achieve. As the visceral nightmare brews under the skin, the growing mystery continually grips, and its inevitably violent outcome would no doubt take one close to the edge.