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Film Review: THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER Has a Memorable, Cruel Heart

Film Review: THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER Has a Memorable, Cruel Heart

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) makes movies such that, when the credit rolls, you will be horrified and disgusted, and you will surely talk about what you just saw and probably remember it forever. You may absolutely hate and unequivocally reject his work, but there is no question of its powerful impact on your psyche. And his latest film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is an extreme and particularly evil example of these tendencies. It eschews the visually visceral horrors of his previous work, and takes on a more psychological and macabre tone in its stead. The movie ultimately does not say much (it is not meant to), but it challenges you over and over again to answer the cruel (if insincere) conundrum at its core.

The premise is simple, though it reveals itself slowly. At first, we see the bizarre relationship between a boozy surgeon named Steven, played with remarkable stoicism by Colin Farrell (a repeat Lanthimos collaborator), and a Damian-like, creepy teenager played by Barry Keoghan (the hapless George in Dunkirk). Martin, the boy, has some clear but unexplained infatuation with Steven, who treats him carefully and deliberately while shielding him from his loving wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their two kids, Kim and Bob. You know the absurdity of the exercise by that hint: no one really names their kid Bob, do they?

So what gives? Is Martin a love child? Martin’s invitation to dine with his mother (Alicia Silverstone) suggests as much as first but then the notion is quickly dispelled by the mother’s fresh moves. The film dabbles just enough on this initial quandary to keep you interested and feeling ill at ease, a sort of preparatory volley for what is to come.

The truth is that Martin’s father died on Steven’s operating table and Martin holds Steven and his booze-soaked unsteady hand for the tragedy. Steven scarcely denies the responsibility and instead apprehensively indulges the boy’s requests to spend time together, eventually including, reluctantly, with his family, but Martin has his own ideas about how Steven can expiate his sins.

Martin warns Steven that he must kill one of his three family members, or else all three will die, slowly, first by the loss of movement in their extremities, then by lack of appetite, and finally, fatally, from bleeding from their eyeballs. What follows is a torturous race against time during which Steven and Anna, first in denial, then in resigned acceptance, try to find a way to rid themselves of the hex cast upon them, which begins to materialize as young Bob and then Kim mysteriously and inexplicably lose their ability to walk.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is meant as psychological terrorism—to force you to confront what you would do if faced with these impossible situations. Steven refuses to engage, but the circumstances push him closer and closer to despair and then resignation. But the film is lifted by Lanthimos’ signature clever script, full of irony, cynicism, and insightful wit about everything from the mundane to the philosophical. His commentary on sexual fetish and married life ennui is surprisingly original. The film is also made emotionally gut-wrenching by the on-point performance of the two children as the potential sacrificial lambs, and the spectacular rendition of the malignant child by Keoghan, reminiscent of the best in the genre such as We Need to Talk About Kevin.

The film is not here to make a point. Unlike, say, The Lobster, which mocked both those obsessed with relationships and those obsessed with those people, The Killing of a Sacred Deer does not comment on broader social trends (although it touches superficially on issues of privilege and wealth). Instead, the movie is a grueling thought exercise, surrounded by obscenely but purposefully distasteful sequences that include the three marked ones, Anne included, jockeying for position with Stephen to not be the ill-chosen one. It makes you laugh and then you catch yourself as you realize the all-too-real implications. You may be chuckling when Stephen makes a list of which of his family members he likes more and why, but the characters are decidedly not. This is a genuine horror movie in disguise.

               It has become more and more common for movies well-regarded by critics to be “message” pieces. As that trend rises, artistic films, made for the sake of the craft, recede. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a throwback to just that type of film. Purely artistry, purely unconventional, a total vision from the director. The story entertains but is mostly meant to make you feel uncomfortable. You may despise his heavy-handed tactics or instinctively reject the morbid and puerile nature of some of the depictions. But you will not be able to deny that Lanthimos succeeds in getting you exactly where he was to be. And so the question remains: What would you do? Which of the three would you kill?

Grade: A-

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About The Author

J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam, a voting member of the New York Film Critics Online, has been a movie lover since he saw the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in theaters at a tender age, and has been a devoted student of American film history every since. His favorite films range from Back to the Future to West Side Story, depending on the time of day, and has a mildly unhealthy obsessions with the Academy Awards. Any similarity with the slightly unstable writer in the seminal 1944 film ‘The Lost Weekend’ is pure coincidence

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