What does it mean to be responsible? As Steven, the cardiologist protagonist in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, comes to realise, it’s a life for a life.
The film introduces Colin Farrell as Steven, a successful heart surgeon working at a very modern hospital, who has a friendly but unclear relationship with a teenage boy named Martin, played by newcomer Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk).
The two spend their free time together grabbing snacks and taking walks along the river, with Steven even gifts the boy with a fancy watch. This strange relationship begins to unravel when Steven introduces Martin to his seemingly perfect family comprised of ophthalmologist wife played by the luminescent Nicole Kidman and two young kids.
What ensues is a sudden fight for survival within Steven’s family, as the film reveals Martin’s true intension of revenge, which is derived from the Greek myth of King Agamemnon where he sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to appease the goddess Artemis for slaying a sacred deer of hers (thus the title).
Sacred Deer is set to test the viewer’s tolerance for discomfort. The film opens with a close up shot of a beating human heart inside an open torso paired with Schubert’s Stabat Mater, D 383: I. “Jesus Christus schwebt am Kreuzel.” From that point forward, one can expect to be on edge the entire duration.
Dialogues and characters are crafted in ways that catch the viewer off guard, emphasise the unnatural coldness of the way they relate to each other, and make one question whether or not this is situated in the real world. The camera moves in ways that represent an unblinking and unseen observer, while the squeaky-clean hospital and home settings are cast in shadows. The eclectic score comes in uneven beats that echo the audience’s heightened distress as the story goes on. Somehow, the film is pegged as black comedy, and true enough there are moments when laughter is the only reaction that can be drawn from such extreme and desperate situations.
Despite this, one can’t help but be entranced by the unrelenting unease. The film's propensity for distubring the senses is an extension of Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos’ body of work, which has always leaned towards the nightmarish yet laughable. He gained global acclaim with his English-language debut The Lobster (also starring Farrell), in which people are paired off into matrimony and those who remain single are turned into the animals of their choice.
Farrell takes a very dark turn here in Sacred Deer, where his professional and personal confidence as a surgeon and a family man is torn down completely by Martin, who’s out to collect what he thinks he’s owed. Meanwhile, Keoghan’s off-kilter rendering of Martin is buoyed by his boyish charms that belie such a sinister agenda. It also helps that the film leaves the source of his power over Steven's family in the air—adding another element of mystery.
With the industry sorely lacking original stories worth telling these days, it’s refreshing to see the likes of Lanthimos churning out unique ideas for cinema—albeit a tad too dark for one’s taste at times.
Get a glimpse of the film here:
The Killing of a Sacred Deer won the Best Screenplay prize at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. It was part of QCinema International Film Festival’s selection for 2017.
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