Movie Review: The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Yorgos Lanthimos rewrites Greek tragedy for a modern fit by forcing the audience to ponder the bargains we strike to separate heart and mind in a movie that mercifully screams “metaphor!”
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic
Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
Running time: 121 mins
By Katherine Monk
Yorgos Lanthimos has been hailed as a modern master by those who embraced The Lobster’s Cannes-winning claws. The Killing of a Sacred Deer will only affirm his status to devotees, but those resistant to his sterilized style will probably find much to loathe in the Greek dramatist’s latest because once again, it all seems like a sick joke.
Lanthimos picks up the thread of the human condition in the opening scene: A closeup of a human heart, beating inside a body, cracked open and tidily exposed for surgery. Moments later, a mask, goggles, gown and bloody gloves are tossed into the trash. Colin Farrell’s bearded face bears a stony expression.
Alas, the godlike surgeon is only human. Truth is self-evident. Yet, human beings have this uncanny, perhaps heroic — but more often-than-not tragic — propensity for deep denial. We wish for things to happen and beg the gods to comply. We resist faith, yet demand miracles. We worship science, yet resent its inability to show compassion.
So yes. We are a sick joke and Lanthimos knows how to craft our collective hubris into haunting cautionary tales tailored for the modern Zeitgeist.
Certainly, the story of cardiac surgeon Steven Murphy (Farrell) is one cast in the comforts of the current era. He lives in the suburbs of a beautiful American city with his beautiful wife Ann (Nicole Kidman), an ophthalmologist and also mother to their two children, Bob and Kim. Steven has everything, and he’s about to lose it all, because that’s just what happens in movies inspired by Greek myth.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a reference to the legend of King Agamemnon, an ambitious ruler looking to expand his kingdom with a siege of Troy. His quest angered the god Artemis, and in order to make peace, Agamemnon was asked to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia. He was ready to do it, but according to some versions of the story, Artemis took a deer in her place.
You could just as easily cite the story of Abraham and Isaac. Lanthimos is using all the keys on the western keyboard to rewrite a familiar tale of parental terror: Would you sacrifice a child?
The answer is always no. At first. The point of these stories — whether it’s Sophie’s choice or Ishmael’s fate — is that somewhere along the way, someone changes his or her mind.
The facts are analyzed and weighed against moral concepts as the human mind looks for a way out of the emotional lobster trap. For the gods, this is the entertaining part: watching humans turn themselves into self-aware hypocrites through logos.
For moviegoers watching anything by Yorgos Lanthimos, it’s like being let in on the joke.
That sounds callous, but in fact it’s the absence of sentiment or empathy that actually saves our souls over the course of watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer because the plot is unbearable.
By making the characters remote, yet authentically human, we can stand back and see the veneer of pride and ego — as well as the looming consequences.
Lanthimos phrases it all like a surreal Roadrunner cartoon with Farrell plotting like Wile E. Coyote while newcomer Martin Keoghan (Dunkirk) offers a creepy Beep-beep! as Martin, the son of one of Steven’s patients.
Kidman provides the perfect counterpoint as a strong, nurturing and grounded presence — but she also surrenders to the bargain. She realizes, much to our own heartbreak, that life is the cruel joke we find a way to make palatable. We methodically separate heart and mind under self-administered anesthetics. We feel we have no other choice.
Lanthimos plays out the metaphor before us with surgical precision, and the same degree of detachment. It is the heart laid bare, beating before us, vulnerable and unaware. Perhaps there’s a larger hand at work, but for Lanthimos, the very question seems to be the punchline… offered in the form of visual emptiness and an eerie vacancy of soul. Greek tragedy for the modern era, indeed.
THE EX-PRESS, November 3, 2017