Cannes 2017 Review: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Lilla Puskás reviews the domestic thriller and Cannes Film Festival award winner The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017, Ireland/UK, 109 min.

Yorgos Lanthimos is known to shock the audience with his deadpan style, robotic dialogues, and extreme existential situations, and the same holds true for his latest film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer. As is typical of many of Lanthimos’s movies, the title is peculiar and meaningful; it refers to an ancient Greek tragedy,  Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides.  Lanthimos’s film, much in the mythic mode, explores remorse, justice, and the long-term consequences of individual choice. To explain more of the correlation between movie and mythological source would give away pivotal plot details. And in this film, plot turns are of crucial importance.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer was honored with “Best Screenplay” at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. The film is like the memorable, mordant satire Dogtooth, which Lanthimos also co-wrote with Efthimis Filippou. It contains their signature closed situation, with an impeccable upper-class family in the middle. With this latest dark and lacerating work, the writing duo entered the realm of domestic thriller. Into this story, they included a mysterious outsider character, one who exerts his authority over the family members and turns their lives upside down. Brimming with brilliantly written and absurd scenes, the movie is reminiscent of  Dutch Director Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman, notably as it includes an adolescent in the role of the menacing stranger.

Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell in The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Following the overwhelming success of The Lobster, Lanthimos reteamed with Colin Farrell and cast another Hollywood star as female lead, the stunning Nicole Kidman. Farrell portrays Steve Murphy, a venerated cardiothoracic surgeon who lives with his ophthalmologist wife (Kidman) and two children. When Steve gets approached by a lonely teen named Martin (played by wonderfully ghoulish Barry Keoghan), the two begin a seemingly banal and awkward conversation about the density of body hair, spaghetti, and expensive watches. Surprisingly though, instead of sending the weird teen away, Steve befriends him and even invites Martin for dinner to meet his family.

What seems innocent in the beginning soon becomes obviously menacing. Martin, showing his true colors, turns out to be a tenacious intruder who aims at enmeshing all the four members of the family. As a kind of emissary of fate, he declares that it’s time for the doctor to make up for his past mistakes and offers a cruel ultimatum.

Barry Keoghan in The Killing of a Sacred Deer

In order to turn the Murphys’ house into a kind of labyrinth, the director and his unfailing  cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis used high and low-angle shots and careful lighting. These innovations were coupled with a stylistic experimentation based on high-anxiety tracking: throughout the film, the camera slowly dollies in and out. The effect is chilling and tense; the movements  foreshadow danger and give the feeling of insecurity to the viewer.

Music also plays a key part in the movie. Gubaidulina’s frantic violin concertos follow hectic pieces of Schubert and Ligeti. Throughout the film, the ominous score drives the viewer into a dark and eerie world where monstrosity takes over. What we eventually see on screen feels like a punch in the stomach.

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