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The Killing of a Sacred Deer - Review

The Killing of a Sacred Deer, by FilmZ

In his latest film, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos and writing partner Efthymis Filippou have cooked up an ancient dish.  The title references a story of Agamemnon, the legendary Greek king who accidentally kills a deer belonging to the goddess Artemis.  In retribution, he must sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia.  This mashup of the Biblical "eye for an eye" with the contemporary Sophie's Choice creates fertile soil for Lanthimos to sow more absurdist satire, but compared to his previous critical success, The Lobster, TKoaSD comes across as pretty straightforward psychodrama, yet still a satire, lightly seasoned with the blackest of humor.  For those familiar with Lanthimos' films, the characters still speak in a stilted deadpan, the effects of which can range from humorous to jarring.  This has been explained as Lanthimos' wanting for us to search for truth, for meaning in the text rather than have the actors' inflection to influence us.  Perhaps that is true, but then he paradoxically hits us over the head with an unnerving atonal soundtrack that blares at those times he wants our hair to stand on end.  Whether one loves or loathes the overall effect, his films are unique events.

Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a successful heart surgeon; with a beautiful home, gorgeous wife Anna (Nicole Kidman)--also a doctor--and two beautiful children, 14-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and pre-adolescent Bob (Sonny Suljic).  True, there is a hint that he once may have had a drinking problem, but he hasn't touched alcohol in three years.  One could certainly understand why his seemingly perfect existence would make him aloof, with just a touch of arrogance.  It seems odd, then, that Steven has taken 16-year-old Martin (Barry Keoghan) under his wing.  It looks like the Big Brothers program in action: he meets the boy at a diner, buys him an expensive watch, and indeed, Martin's father died not long ago, and the boy seems adrift.  But why does Steven lie to his family about where he has been and to his anesthesiologist friend (Bill Camp) about the reason Martin is visiting Steven at the hospital?

This relationship becomes the driving force that impels the drama's evolution into suspense.  Martin is a strange boy, ill-at-ease and yet increasingly demanding as he insinuates himself more and more into Steven's life.  The surgeon decides to invite the boy to his home for dinner and to meet his family, a decision we begin to feel is roughly akin to inviting a vampire into one's home--and our intuition would be accurate.  Kim develops a crush on Martin and he begins to show his bad influence on both of the Murphy children.  Anna is kind and cordial, but we also see a leeriness at the edges.  In thanks for the meal, Martin reciprocates by inviting Steven to his home for dinner.  Steven demurs, but he learns that the invitation is not so much a request as a demand.  Things get even stranger when it becomes evident that Martin is playing Cupid, trying to set Steven up with his widowed mother (Alicia Silverstone), a plot she seems to be in on.

After that, Steven tries to distance himself from the boy, but Martin is having none of it.  He is now in charge of the relationship.  Martin surprises Steven in the hospital, even after the surgeon urges the boy to clear visits with him first.  It is here that Martin fully divulges his intentions: a curse targeting Steven's family--to Martin the only fitting justice--that leads to the third act of ever-increasing horror.  We also come to fully understand Steven's motivation to steward the boy.  It's a smart plan well-written and delivered by Lanthimos, Filippou, and the cast, vacillating between dark humor and psychological horror, between satire and morality tale.  It takes us toward a resolution only Steven can decide, one that may cause Martin to lift his curse but will bring down another that the Murphy family can never shed.  As our traveling partner, Serfing Dude, said later about the climactic point, "I knew it was time to either light up or run to the bathroom."

Two years ago, when we saw The Lobster, Lanthimos' first English-language film, we didn't appreciate it as much as some.  Since then, it has worn better in our memory, and it prepared us for The Killing of the Sacred DeerTKoaSD is more Greek tragedy, less black comic satire than The Lobster, and the deadpan dialogue has been dialed down--Colin Farrell, a veteran of both films, voices emotion here, at times of frustration and rage.  Barry Keoghan wears the flat affect well as the emotionally barren teen who sets the plot in motion.  After seeing him as doomed boys in both '71 and Dunkirk, we can say that his screen presence is undeniable.  Cassidy and Suljic are striking young actors with similarly gorgeous eyes; both drew empathy and wore their parts like gloves.  It was Kidman, though, who provided the true soul of the Murphy family.  She carried out Lanthimos non-inflection dictum (which he denies, BTW) only by softening her tone.  Still, she is a marvelous actor, and the camera caught small, sharp glances that added a subtext of underlying family discord, heightening the drama and, overall, improving the film.  TKoaSD tied for Best Screenplay at Cannes, and the film contended for the Palme d'Or.  We hope that one day Lanthimos drops the flat affect and tone; rather than a hallmark of style, it is an annoying, distracting detraction.
7.0 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
5.5 out of 10 on an Awards Scale (Outside chance for Barry Keoghan Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay)


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