The director that brought us the wondrously strange The Lobster again teams with Colin Farrell to dip once more into the realm of the surreal. This time Yoros Lanthimos tries his hand at a darkly comic surreal thriller happening behind the closed doors of upper-class suburbia in The Killing Of A Sacred Deer.
Although it is better to head into the film knowing as little as possible, here is a brief synopsis just in case. Renowned cardiovascular surgeon Steven Murphy’s (Colin Farrell) life is thrown into chaos when both of his children lose the ability to walk, or to feel their legs at all. Coming and going at seemingly a whim, the symptoms deny medical diagnosis and treatment. As Anna Murphy (Nicole Kidman) desperately seeks to save their children, a young man (Barry Keoghan) to which Steven shares a past connection with offers him a solution, but one that requires an unthinkable sacrifice.
Lanthimos elicits his trademark flat performance from his actors. That is not saying it is a bad performance, far from it, just that each is pruned of much of the emotional content and affect. These precise and tonally grey exchanges make us re-examine the schemas of social interaction that we are locked into, and the social structure that this is reliant on. In The Lobster it seemed like a part of the strange “other world” that the script had conjured, one that had different social laws and structures to ours. In The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, the world is closer to our own, in fact there are no real discernible differences but the strange perfunctory interaction between everyone (and perhaps the cause of the infliction, although it is given nothing in the way of an explanation). That difference often jolts us out of our preconceptions, and as we do we re-examine. That re-examination is what drives The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, and what makes it so shocking beyond the mere facts of the tale.
What it shows is a world stratified by privilege and entitlement; be that money, education, or by simply being born a man. The whole family structure devolves as the crisis continues to one of extreme patriarchy, with the father holding the decision of life and death. Yet it is also a world of cosmic justice, an eye for an eye, and that is as cruel and uncaring as the Greek gods in the Iphigenia myth referenced in the title. The result is a delve into unsettling weirdness, where the message is obtuse and elusive, only to be obtained as a reward for exhaustive thought and analysis. Like a two hour Twilight Zone episode directed by David Lynch, but someone has forgot to supply the leather, rock ‘n roll (or cool jazz), and dancing dwarves.
The issue with The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, is that final moment fails to land. Sure, it shows the dark absurdity of the situation, and mines an over the top denouement for great cinematic effect, it’s just that the denouement fails to address issues dramatically, tying those threads of the tale together to give meaning. After all that has proceeded it feels more of a missed opportunity, rather than deliberate ambiguity, lessening the impact.
Farrell and Keoghan are excellent pitted against each other. Both understand Lanthimos’ demands of his actors, yet still manage to bring the dramatic tension into play that threatens to destroy lives and family. Drained of some of the more over the top emotions, the results are crueller and more capricious by comparison. Kidman is driven as Anna, thriving under the constraints placed upon her. However it is young Raffey Cassidy that really shines through, bringing a plaintiveness to the young girl caught up in events beyond her control, and with her life in play. The image of her dragging herself across the floor, bargaining, scheming or pleading for her life is deeply disturbing and affecting.
A strange and wonderful piece, that just doesn’t hit its message hard enough. However, even in its ambiguities there is a lot on offer here for viewers with patience and a taste for surrealism.