Film Review: The killing of a sacred deer

Film Review Series by Lance Sinclair.

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This week State Library of Queensland’s cinephile, Lance Sinclair, reviews The Killing of a Sacred Deer, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and starring Barry Keoghan, Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell.

This is the final blog entry for State Library's Kanopy film review series. Thanks for reading along.

Image taken from film The killing of a sacred deer, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, supplied by Madman Entertainment, streamed on Kanopy database.

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER

Loosely based around the final Greek tragedy from Euripides (dating sometime around 400 BC), in which a father must weigh up the sacrifice of a child in return for a greater good, director Yorgos Lanthimos’ feature The killing of a sacred deer is a film so deliberately provocative and challenging that it often feels closer to a performance art installation than what we normally consider a “movie”. 

Cardiovascular surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) has been acting strange lately. He has taken a teenage boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan- one of the most fascinating actors of his generation, and a guarantee that any project he appears in will be of worth), under his wing, seemingly acting as a mentor and a benefactor to the boy and his mother, while neglecting his own family. As our tale unfolds, the full scope of Martin’s supernatural power over both Steven, and eventually the entire Murphy clan, as they are held accountable under the weight of his unwavering, bizarre wrath, will be doled out to us like an ominous card reading or a series of increasingly dire clinical diagnoses. 

But really, it’s the telling of the tale that makes this movie special. The idea of a family held hostage by the whims of a malicious, omnipotent youth could be told successfully in a very straightforward manner, and still retain the basic chill of the core concept (the Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life” from 1961 being a perfect example), but this is a movie that aims to disorient its audience on every level. The deliberately lifeless, defeated performances from all the cast members present us with a world that looks like our own but is fundamentally wrong on some level.  Some characters have a spark that will occasionally flare up to snap them out of their waking fog - particularly Nicole Kidman as Anna, whose steely exterior masks an ocean of despair, but in the end they all must submit to their function as crude puppets, existing only to play out the fable that Lanthimos is puppeteering for us.  In this way, the film shares a significant amount of DNA with the works of writer/director Charlie Kaufman - particularly his most recent feature I’m thinking of ending things.  This is a challenging movie, and those resistant to its spell could find it to be any combination of silly, distasteful, jarring or dull. Those willing to hand over their ticket stub and spend two hours dreaming with it will find themselves in the thrall of an experience unlike anything they may have seen. 

This is a movie as much about our watching of the thing as it is the story it tells. 

In the end, film is a blank slate or an empty room. Characters and their props enter and do their dance for us, asking us to love them, hate them, put ourselves in their shoes or just observe with the remote detachment of a careless deity.  

They all have their places, as we have ours. The lights dim, the magic show begins, and we tell each other our stories. It could be the arch strangeness of The killing of a sacred deer, or any of the millions of points sparkling on the emotional spectrum, all captured to the best of our abilities by the moving picture. In the end, every one of them (more or less) is a testament to our ingenuity, spirit and that desire for connection through passing down old tales that has been the true mark of humanity since we were first capable of thought. Come and take a seat, the next feature is about to begin. 

Further reading

  • Colin Farrell and Filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos on Their Bond, Iran-Contra, and the Value of Prosthetics / Yuan, Jada. New York; Oct 2, 2017 (article)
  • The unlikely favourite: Why the rise of Yorgos Lanthimos is good news for film-lovers / Loughrey, Clarisse. The Independent (Online); London: Independent Digital News & Media. Jan 1, 2019 (article)
  • Yorgos Lanthimos: 'I don't know how to make a straightforward film' - interview with The Killing of a Sacred Deer director / Stolworthy, Jacob. The Independent (Online); London: Independent Digital News & Media. Nov 1, 2017 (article)
  • Yorgos Lanthimos on directing The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Greek tragedy, and why he's not one for explanations / Mottram, James. South China Morning Post (Online), Hong Kong: South China Morning Post Publishers Limited. May 15, 2018 (article)
  • Viewer discretion advised: Yorgos Lanthimos on luring A-list talent to the 'extremely disturbed' / Telegraph.co.uk; London, 28 Oct 2017 (article)
  • The Killing of a Sacred Deer / Romney, Jonathan. Sight and Sound; London Vol. 27, Iss. 11,  (Nov 2017): 54-55 (article)
  • Selling the movie : the art of the film poster / Smith, Ian Haydn ; London : White Lion Publishing ; 2018 (ebook)
  • Film : a critical introduction / Pramaggiore, Maria and Wallis, Tom; London, England : Laurence King Publishing ; 2020 (ebook)
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