The tragedy thrust into the heart of this film – much like leading character’s surgical routine – is that the tendency to dissect the past of what we see unfold is hollow; in the end, rumination on what has lead us here means little to its ultimate outcome. Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest effort is an unsettling tale that plays out in a way that patiently stalks a carefully constructed suburban family life – impervious to the unravelling tragedy hanging over them long before the film begins, waiting to strike.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer resuscitates the ancient anguish found in Euripides’ classic play of moral dilemmas, Iphigenia in Aulis, against an updated backdrop. Sinister undertones haunt the film from the first frame, despite of – or perhaps because of – what appears on the surface to be a routine at work and at home managed by Dr Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) with surgical precision. Farrell’s character has his keenly-regulated yet idyllic family life – with his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), and two charming children, 15-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and preteen Bob (Sunny Suljic) – ruptured by the eerie intrusion of Martin (Barry Keoghan), in the vein of Pasolini’s Teorema.
Martin’s role in the story and his relationship with Steven strikes an uneasy tone from the start, when the well-respected and wealthy cardiac surgeon goes out of his way to lie for the mysterious teen, to lavish him with expensive gifts and even to invite him over for a family dinner. Lanthimos – who previous outings include Dogtooth and The Lobster – once again takes an unwavering stab at societal ailments lurking underneath this cosy set-up; something is clearly rotten under Steven’s orderly and stable existence and this lingering corrosion – embodied in Martin – latches on and seeps into his own home. A quick glance at Lanthimos’ idiosyncratic glacial script – wherein family dinner table conversations resemble the tone of matter-of-fact doctor appointments– reveals a domestic life as sterile as the operating theatre. Yet, the serene family life and their methodical relationship comes apart at the seams when Lanthimos drags the audience into this arthouse psychological thriller reminiscent of 70’s horror (owing a debt to The Shining and early Polanski) and leaves us trapped in a bizarre, nightmarish tale, where justice returns to the eye-for-an-eye rules of the ancient world.
The film proceeds in an almost stoic and maddening manner, loosely taking its lead (and name) from the aforementioned Greek myth wherein the innocent Iphigenia is tragically tricked by her father, the general Agamemnon, into being a human sacrifice to the gods, after he had angered them by accidentally slaying a sacred deer. Fortunately, the film refuses to lean too heavily on the original myth, which is not required reading here; instead Lanthimos’ chilling retelling only borrows its timeless account of family torment to weave a modern slice of moral terror, unfolding in a world whose time and place remain vague, but cosmic rules of justice reign supreme. Lanthimos chooses not to focus on past transgressions and keeps personal histories and motivations obscure; rather, this is a breathless take on the repercussions of injustice, and the pound of flesh exacted to right its wrongs. Increasingly unsettling aspects surrounding the family life, suggested yet unexamined, emerge in the course of this undoing, propelling a searing portrayal of suburban horror and domestic sacrifice, backed up by the soundtrack’s jarring injections.
With phenomenal performances throughout the cast – in particular, Farrell and Kidman – this difficult story is lucky to be in the hands of Lanthimos, whose eye for striking detail and scene composition fuels the helpless scenarios at hand. This is one of the most challenging films of the year, and for Lanthimos’ fans, his most crystallized and purposeful effort yet.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is set for release on 3rd November 2017.
Words by Oliver Smith