The Killing of a Sacred Deer Movie Review
Review by Jason Jean (B-)
The Killing of a Sacred Deer opens where most stories close - an open chest cavity with a still-beating human heart. This precious and mythological organ now exposed for what it is, a homely, single-minded piston hammering life into its host. We must wonder how long it can continue to hammer away being exhibited to the open air as it is. Is an open heart like a fish trapped on land? Will its rhythm soon fall out of time and slow? Will it finally stop altogether? We can't escape the feeling that it will.
In the odd world of Yorgo Lanthimos the heart is as it is, a pulmonary carburetor flexing and reflexing under a layer of thick tallow. A biological feature pounding out a fixed series of beats. This is certainly not the heart of the poets. The enchanted fountainhead of life where romantic delirium and melancholy emanate. Recalling Yorgos' previous work, The Lobster (one of 2016's brightest film stars in this author's opinion), and now with The Killing of a Sacred Deer, we get the impression that this director's philosophy concerning film is one of absolute abject dispassion. Few films are as frigid and clinical as these.
And yet Yorgos is a filmmaker game to introduce, not chemistry, but alchemy, into his antiseptic interpretations of romantic entanglements and family. Creating something akin to contemporary fairy tales - albeit sallow and mortifying ones. Employing an ambiguous witchcraft to turn human beings into animals in The Lobster, or to curse an entire family with degenerative nerve and eating disorders in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (even this title implies a fascination with mythos and rituals). His work is a mixture of Franz Kafka and Josef Mengele.
Or is it Gray's Anatomy interpreted by Peter Straub?
Those looking for gross discomfort look no further than Lanthimos. For everyone else this film will be a bath in battery acid. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a resuscitation of the Theatre of the Absurd - cinema totally desiccated of emotional connectivity to a point fringing on idiocy. Which can be a maddening experience until finally, through pure insistence, the tone breaches into hilarity. There's a few moments where the deadpan pays off, and the absurdity of what is being asked of the audience to interpret topples over into very real comedy. Unfortunately, however, these laughs are distributed frugally between sustained stretches of malaise.
A disquieting film requires a disquieting plot. Here we have a story centered on a paternal figure, and doctor(Colin Farrell, replete with academic beard), and his ill-advised relationship with a teenage boy (Barry Keoghan). We're not allowed in to the dynamics of this relationship between heart surgeon and child for at least a third of the film, but there's hugging and gift giving involved, and private lunches, and there's a deeply troubling suspicion that a deviant commerce is afoot. Dr. Murphy soon brings the boy home to meet his family - a nuclear family by any definition - and aside from general domestic weirdness (the surgeons in this film seem inclined to treat their wives as either nurses or incapacitated patients at home - we can only guess what twisted psycho-sexual impulses are being engaged by this behavior) we discover the relationship is one of mentor and protege.
The good doctor had the unfortunate distinction of being the last surgeon to work on the kid's ailing father - who died during the operation (his fish didn't survive its recess into the open unfortunately, and must have succumbed to exposure). This boy, now an orphan, is looking to the doctor to fulfill a particular role in his life. A role which may involve hooking up with his middle aged mother, (Alicia Silverstone, in case you thought she may have threw herself into the ocean after Batman And Robin) whom he claims "has a great body." Or a role which may involve a deluge of paranormal violence. Still, grown men should probably avoid pursuing relationships with teenagers not of their own loins for any reason. If we walk away from The Killing of a Sacred Deer pocketing any lesson, it should be this one.
Do not befriend teenage boys. Ever. For any reason.
Dark magic is soon cast in an effort to settle debts between father and foster son. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a cautionary tale of curses and the accursed. A plague is put upon a family with no appreciable emotive content, (the Murphys, as presented, are completely deserted human beings) conjured by the only sympathetic, ethological character in the film. Barry Keoghan's Martin could very easily be the bullied, teenage version of Joel Edgerton's Gordo in his arthouse thriller, The Gift. Martin is puberty's Frankenstein. Tragic, gawky, earnest - yet incredibly dangerous when it comes to conducting the business of evening up scores.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a sprawling, perhaps pointless, analysis of familial integrity, vulnerability, intrusion, and ultimately revenge, presented as a series of clinical functions and malfunctions. Marriage. Loneliness. Menstruation. Armpit hair. Manual stimulation. Foreplay involving anesthetic role-play (one can almost hear the howling of Freud's ghost). The grotesque backfires of prepubescent sexual curiosity. Eating. Walking. Empathy. Disgust. All are presented as either biological products or biological byproducts.
The hex put upon Dr. Steven Murphy's family is merely an addendum of this theme. We watch, through increasing degrees of distress, as these genetic inheritors Murphy calls his 'children' begin to break down and miscarry. First the network of nerves in their spinal columns crash, forcing the kids to paddle along on the floor on their bellies, dragging their useless legs behind them. Then they refuse to eat. Then they begin streaming blood out their tear ducts.
One can't imagine a worse fate as a parent watching your children's lives grind to a halt like this.
Yet it turns out that the tactical, stoic approach the Murphy parents take in an attempt to conquer the hex put on their children is nearly as unsettling as the hex itself. Decisions need be made to appease this terrible spell. Sometimes the survival of a family unit comes down to basic math equations. Mostly subtraction.
In the entertainment industry there are many false artists just as there are many genuine hacks. It's only sporadically that we stumble over the authentic article - the artiste de resistance. True to the binary nature of that particular species, Lanthimos is capable of creating works of incalculable brilliance (The Lobster) as well as diabolical works of id exorcism. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is definitely the latter. It's a tasteless (in every sense) goulash of domestic discord with a chaser of chilled seawater.
As an ardent fan of The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer feels like something of a mistrial. A hung jury. It's a deeply troubling, deeply unforgiving work of cinema. One that fails to resonate with the viewer in any meaningful way, or for very long after initial contact. It proposes that life is more than likely meaningless, yet occasionally, and seemingly by random chance, there are flurries of comedy and magic as well. Mostly black.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.