THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Bill Camp, Alicia Silverstone
MPAA Rating: (for disturbing violent and sexual content, some graphic nudity and language)
Running Time: 2:01
Release Date: 10/20/17 (limited); 10/27/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 26, 2017
Another twisted, modern-day fable from director Yorgos Lanthimos, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is about a man who evades responsibility, even in the most dire of circumstances. In his job as a heart surgeon, lives hang in the balance, and in one case, the outcome fell on the wrong side. It's not his fault, of course. The man points out that it's never a surgeon's fault when an operation goes wrong. An anesthesiologist can make such a grave error, but a surgeon is basically immune to such mistakes.
Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), then, has a strange relationship with power. He needs it for sure. Just look at the way he has sex with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman). She disrobes and lies across the bed, after asking what degree of unconsciousness her husband wants her to mimic, as if she's one of his patients going in for surgery. Note how he interacts with his children—the teenage Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and the burgeoning adolescent Bob (Sunny Suljic). There's little sense of love there, and any conversation about his kids is completely fact-based and rational (which, of course, makes it seem completely irrational in the realm of ordinary human interactions), such as announcing to a few people that Kim just started menstruating.
Then there's Steven's relationship with Martin (Barry Keoghan), a teenager with whom the surgeon meets regularly for lunch and to whom he gifts an expensive watch. There is something undeniably strange about this relationship, and it becomes even stranger in ways that no one possibly could expect. What we can tell, though, is that their relationship is essentially transactional. Steven gives the kid attention and gifts. What the surgeon receives in exchange for those things is at the dark and cruel heart of Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou's screenplay.
This is a weird movie, although that's to be expected from Lanthimos, who creates characters who are as emotionally constipated as the laws of the world around them are bizarre. Here, the characters speak with monotonous matter-of-factness, as if their mouths are translating the thoughts of their brains into a language that is foreign to their thoughts. For a while, it seems as if no one is capable of producing emotions, let alone expressing them.
We later learn that's not true, when Steven, overcome with the weight of a decision that he will be forced to make at some point sooner or later, sobs outside his house, away from the view of anyone else. One wonders if the other characters here have similar internal lives. If they do, Lanthimos and Filippou don't allow us to see those moments. Every thought the other characters express is like negotiating a logical transaction—even when the lives of at least three people are on the line.
Without directly giving away the gag (To be clear, it is one, in a cynically warped way), the basic plot is that Steven was Martin's father's surgeon after a car crash a few years prior. The father died, leaving Martin to be raised by his mother (played by Alicia Silverstone). On the surface, it appears that Steven pays attention to the boy out of guilt or a sense of responsibility. Martin appears to want a replacement father, which is why he invites Steven over to his house for dinner with his mother and leaves the adults alone to talk.
We come to know, though, that Steven is incapable of taking responsibility for his actions. He has been sober since the failed surgery, but when pressed about his level of intoxication during the surgery that Martin's father didn't survive, that's when he lays any blame for medical malpractice on anesthesiologists.
The central joke, then, is putting Steven in a situation in which he must both make a decision and be the sole person to take responsibility for it. The situation is created from the fact that he refuses to be responsible for what happened to Martin's father, and it involves some mystical curse that either will kill three people or end with a single sacrifice to atone for a lost life. A character rattles off the rules of this curse without stopping for a breath. The rules don't matter as much as the consequences, which include three, mysterious ailments that strike without warning and won't stop until one person or three people are dead. It's also a metaphor, which the same character rather unnecessarily points out later.
The film's tone is oddly sterile, as it blends its comic elements—of these staid characters responding to a scenario that is far more significant than they are capable of handling—and the inherent horror of the inevitable outcome of the curse (The payoff is an admittedly remarkable scene, which is simultaneously terrifying and funny). Everything is intentionally removed from the realm of the real world, even though everything appears to exist in it.
It's an allegory about power, responsibility, and indecision, yes, but in its detachment from any behavior or attitude that seems remotely human, The Killing of a Sacred Deer may have buried itself too deeply in metaphor and fable for it to be relatable or to seem relevant. It's easier to appreciate what Lanthimos is attempting to do than it is to cull from it some meaning that exists beyond the movie's self-contained world.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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