Film of the week: The Killing of a Sacred Deer replays Greek tragedy as modernist guignol

Colin Farrell’s doctor tries on the punishments of Agamemnon for size in Yorgos Lanthimos’s high art ‘rattler’, a tall and glassy reworking of the tragedy of Iphigenia.

from our November 2017 issue

Nicole Kidman as opthamologist Anna Murphy and Colin Farrell as her heart-surgeon husband Steven in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Nicole Kidman as opthamologist Anna Murphy and Colin Farrell as her heart-surgeon husband Steven in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Spoiler alert: this review reveals key plot details

There is no deer in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer – any more than there is an actual lobster in his The Lobster (2015) – but its presence, like that of the sacred, is at least implied. The game is a little clumsily given away, however, when protagonist Steven, a successful heart surgeon, visits his children’s school in an attempt to work out which of the two of them is more deserving of being saved from certain death. One of his daughter Kim’s virtues, the principal tells him, is that she wrote an excellent essay on the tragedy of Iphigenia.

In the myth, as made famous by Euripides and Racine, the sacred deer is killed by Agamemnon, causing offence to the goddess Artemis and necessitating the sacrifice of the king’s daughter Iphigenia. So, despite being in the English language and shot substantially in Cincinnati, this is arguably the most Hellenic film yet from the man whose Dogtooth (2009) helped put Greek cinema back on the world map.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer follows the unlikely commercial success of The Lobster, Lanthimos’s first English-language film, which saw him playing his characteristic games with words and surreal logic, and that assembled a starry international cast for a black comedy bearing echoes of theatrical absurdists from Ionesco to N.F. Simpson, not to mention touches of Monty Python. Again starring Colin Farrell, it ostensibly extends the same experiment; it uses English in a very similar way, especially in its deliberate, incantatory use of verbal banalities.

But where The Lobster adopted an ostentatiously eccentric, almost farcical comic mode, The Killing… foregrounds its seriousness in the form of a ritualistic severity, and starkly confronts us with the theme of fleshly mortality from the very start. The pre-credits image, played to a solemn fanfare from Schubert’s Stabat Mater, is a close-up of a human heart undergoing surgery. Presumably this is the surgery that, if he is truly to blame, a drunken Steven muffed earlier in his career – the cause of the sacrifice now demanded of him.

Barry Keoghan as Martin

Barry Keoghan as Martin

As is standard with Lanthimos, the film relies above all on discrepancy – notably between the timeless, transcendent status of the Iphigenia myth and the mundane concreteness of the contemporary setting into which that story is displaced (as suggested by a speech Steven gives about angioplasty, the film itself transplants an original narrative ‘heart’ into a new host body). This disjunction receives a particular spin here from Lanthimos’s characteristically flat treatment of an extreme situation and the emotions surrounding it. The tone is set early on by a discussion about watches and the comparative virtues of metal and leather straps. The language is exaggeratedly prosaic throughout, as is the actors’ affectless delivery; this acting style, since Dogtooth, has been recognisable as the quintessential mark of Lanthimos’s direction, although even by the time of his third film Alps (2011) it seemed to be congealing into mannerism.

With its sporadic, abrupt moments of outré violence and sexuality, The Lobster invoked extremes, but The Killing… goes further, and with less obviously humorous intent. There are indeed elements of comedy, not only in the verbal riffs but also in the relishably awkward scene in which Steven faces an earnest come-on from the mother of Martin, the teenage boy who has insinuated himself into the surgeon’s life. (Alicia Silverstone plays the mother in a funny, rather touching return to the limelight: “I won’t let you leave until you’ve tried my tart”). However, some of the odder absurdities – such as Martin’s quasi-homoerotic curiosity about Steven’s body hair – seem incongruous, like a whimsical residue of Lanthimos’s earlier mode.

But for the most part, the director and his regular co-writer Efthimis Filippou play it deadly serious. If The Killing… still feels at times like a black comedy executed with a ruthless poker face, it is nevertheless earnest in its intent to unsettle. The flouting of social decorum goes from Steven’s wife Anna giving her husband’s colleague a handjob in exchange for information, to a scene in which Steven confesses to Bob that he once gave his own father an orgasm. But the film goes much further in its use of images that seem to belong more to the horror genre than to art cinema (unless you’re thinking of art cinema at the Haneke/von Trier end of the spectrum): young Bob bleeding from the eyes, or the climactic scene in which Steven places hoods over his family’s heads, and his own, before taking blind shots at them, thus avoiding the necessity of choice.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Of course, such cold-blooded grand guignol sits directly in the lineage of Greek tragedy, and Lanthimos has simply made a film that lays bare the narrative and emotional extremity traditionally repressed by the formal restraint of classicism. Meanwhile The Killing… cinematically reimagines the ritualistic resonance of tragedy by adopting a severe, grandiose style that is new for this director. The vast expanses of Steven and Anna’s baronial-style home and of the hospital where he works suggest enclosed royal palaces; cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis exaggerates the coldly monumental scale of such spaces to evoke a hubristic realm of the materialistic and the rational, under threat from the merciless supernatural force of Martin’s avenging will, as he demands that Steven makes drastic penance for the death of Martin’s father on his operating table.

The stakes of the drama – Steven can neither escape from nor compromise with destiny – are brought home by the adoption of a Kubrickian manner in the visuals, notably the long glides along symmetrically shot hospital corridors. A further echo of Kubrick comes in the use of modern compositions, including work by György Ligeti and Sofia Gubaidulina. The use of music is consistently disturbing, not least in the highlighting of an ominously thrumming percussive undercurrent or a repeated eerie whistling. Overall, Johnnie Burn’s sound design is nerve-jangling.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

That, however, is possibly the problem. Perhaps there should be a term for that strain of ruthlessly crafted auteur films that use both philosophical provocation and visceral effects to get under our skin: ‘art rattlers’, maybe, which would include much of Haneke and von Trier as well as Darren Aronofsky’s preposterously forced mother! A drawback of such films might be that, after the impact of a first viewing, there may be less to engage with than one would hope. When I saw The Killing… in Cannes in May, I immediately wrote an enthusiastic review; but since then I have barely thought about it. Watching it again months later, I was disappointed to find that it doesn’t reveal further depths, though it demonstrates how imposingly Lanthimos has transformed himself from a director of wildly offbeat yet minutely calibrated intimacy to an international provocateur confidently working on a quasi-operatic scale.

Where The Killing… does continue to impress is less in its narrative or its stylistic execution than in the precise direction of the acting, which in the case of Farrell – as an increasingly harassed patriarch, his emergent stress seeming to show in every hair of his salt-and-pepper beard – progresses from bemused containment to raging agony. Nicole Kidman gives a contained, knowing, crisply oblique performance that again shows – as she did in Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (2004) – her command of veiled elusiveness.

The more open performances by Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic as the couple’s children exude a candour that is all but moving – ‘all but’ because the overall tone so effectively distances us from direct emotional investment. The film’s crowning achievement, however, is a cannily original piece of casting. As Martin, Barry Keoghan – recently seen in Dunkirk – is altogether unnerving: at once menacing, malign, faintly camp and oddly vulnerable, an implacable nemesis who nevertheless seems only too aware of his impersonal status as an instrument of destiny.

 

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