The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
One thing you have to say for director Yorgos Lanthimos: he makes challenging films. The Lobster dared viewers’ comprehension (and patience), and his most recent The Killing of a Sacred Deer extends that, crafting an aesthetically honed narrative that borders on incomprehensible. Is it good? Is it incoherent? Does it even matter?
The plot of The Killing of a Sacred Deer is made only slightly more coherent when you realize that it’s (very loosely) based on Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. Colin Farrell is Steven Murphy, a heart surgeon living an exemplary (and remarkably clean) life with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and two children Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy). Steven has a curious friendship with troubled teenager, Martin (Barry Keoghan), whose influence in Steven’s life increases as he insinuates himself deeper and deeper into the family. Soon Martin’s motivations become (somewhat) clear when Bob comes down with a mysterious illness that Martin claims is a punishment for Steven’s past transgressions. Steven now has a dreadful choice to make or risk the total destruction of his family. What ensues is a battle of emotionless wills between Steven and Martin, leading to a somewhat inevitable conclusion (again, especially if you take Euripides into account).
The mythological basis only just manages to make greater sense of a film that doesn’t quite make sense on its own. But taking The Killing of a Sacred Deer at face value – as I had to while watching the film, initially – there is a complex of tragedy and comedy feeding into a narrative that never completely fulfills its promise. The film slides between apparent, if studied, realism and the supernatural – characters speak with a precision that mimics stagecraft (to a degree), as they move within sparse settings photographed with a mobile but distant camera eye. This is all deliberate, and one has to admire Lanthimos’s dedication to the imagery that he constructs. The Murphys live in a pristine world where everyone has a set responsibility – Steven repeats his injunction that Bob cut his hair and water the plants, as per his familial role – and everything is as ordered as it is soulless. The movement from the Murphy house to the hospital and back again is surprising because there really is no sense that the two places are any different – the sterile world that the Murphys inhabit forms itself around them, and thus the inevitability of their tragedy is laid bare. Enter into this Martin, who stands out in his messiness, his off-ness, as he slurps pasta and explains to Steven that there’s no animosity in what is happening to the family—just justice. It’s a horrifying turn, but it’s hard to be overly sympathetic to Steven, who refuses to acknowledge his transgressions or his role in Martin’s vengeance.
Barry Keoghan is a standout here, playing Martin with a sociopathic tenderness that makes him fascinating and horrifying to watch. He’s a haunting presence, even when he departs the screen for long periods of time to provide space for the horrors of the Murphys. There’s more than a hint of the vampire in the way that he has to be invited in to the Murphys’ household, the way he insinuates himself with Kim, and even the way he attempts first to obtain some reparation in hooking Steven up with his mother (Alicia Silverstone, underused but excellent in her small role).
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is not going to please anyone not already convinced by Lanthimos’s style. It’s a deeply aesthetic film, moving slowly from one scene to the next with deliberate camera movements and dolly work, avoiding drawing us too close to the characters (for fear, I think, that we might actually consider them human). It looks unflinchingly at the cruelty of the situation, and there’s really no one – save, perhaps, the children – to sympathize with. In that sense, it’s a perfect Greek tragedy, fatalistic and completely, viciously moral. But it doesn’t make for particularly pleasant viewing, and there were several moments when I simply considered turning the whole thing off.
This Blu-ray release is very pretty to look at, the HD looks great and the sound mixing excellent, but the special features are incredibly thin, comprising only a single featurette. I would have welcomed a more in-depth look at the film’s mythos, the stories that Lanthimos is drawing from, and the way that he constructs this tragedy within a modern setting. While I’m no fan of a director telling his audience how to understand his work, to have some basis for what Lanthimos thought he was doing might have helped to deepen my understanding of the film’s imagery. That the Blu-ray provides no further elucidation of the film’s project is a weakness, because it would have at least been interesting and would certainly justify purchasing it.
I’m almost inclined to write off The Killing of a Sacred Deer as a failed attempt to reconstitute the meaning of tragedy, a very ambitious but ultimately incoherent work of art. The film wants so much to force its viewer to interact with a combination of obscure meanings that it manages to establish no clear moral universe. At the same time, there’s something fascinating at the base of all this, failure or not. While it’s hardly a film I want to see a second time, it did keep me thinking and debating within myself for the better part of a weekend. That, in itself, makes for an intriguing work of art.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is now available on Blu-ray.