‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ Review: Farrell and Kidman Astound in Terrifying Drama

[This is a re-post of our review from the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. The Killing of a Sacred Deer opens in limited release tomorrow.]

During a press conference at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, noted cinematic auteur Yorgos Lanthimos remarked that his new film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, was originally intended to be a comedy. He noted, however, that when the actors arrive on set and the film moves into the editing room it can transform into something else entirely. While there are some sporadic laughs in Lanthimos’ follow up to 2015’s The Lobster, the end result is a piece of riveting and disturbing drama that may leave you reeling.

Using Cincinnati as a backdrop for a generic American city, Deer begins with a close up of a real human heart exposed on an operating table. Franz Schubert’s grand symphony “Stabat Mater D383: I. Jesus Christus schwebt am Kreuzel” blares as the camera pans back and a surgeon prepares to engage an organ that continues to beat unprotected from the outside world. It’s an intense image foreshadowing that in the one man life can delicately dance on the precipice of death in the hands of another and those actions have consequences.

At the center of Lanthimos’ tale is Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell, incredible), a top cardiologist who at first glance seems to be living an idyllic suburban existence. His wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman, making it all look so easy), is also a successful doctor, and they have two children, a teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy, gutsy) and a younger son Bob (Sunny Suljic, talented). Strangely, Steven also has an odd relationship with an older teen, Martin (Barry Keoghan, wonderfully disturbing). They meet at a diner for a meal and then talk by the river. Steven puzzlingly gives him a watch as a gift. Steven introduces him to a work colleague as schoolmate of his daughter when that is simply not the case. Martin comes over to have dinner with his family even though they are all unclear how Steven knows him the first place. And it all seems slightly (emphasis on slightly) odd to Steven’s family and co-workers. They barely question it, however, because why would anyone believe a kind-hearted and pillar of the community such as Steven would give them cause to?

Image via Cannes

The twist is that Martin increasingly appears psychologically disturbed, perhaps even developmentally disabled. No matter how odd his actions or speech, he’s blatantly obsessed with Steven and Lanthimos has no problem insinuating there is some sort of inappropriate relationship occurring between them. It may be a red herring (and one that plays out slightly longer than necessary), but it specifically sets the tone for the disturbing events to come.

Things take a disconcerting turn when Martin shows up unexpectedly at Steven’s workplace and practically guilts him into having dinner at his own home, an evening where Martin blatantly encourages Steven to indulge in sexual relations with his mother (Alicia Silverstone, almost unrecognizable). There is a method behind Martin’s scheming, however. Martin’s father passed away from complications from heart surgery performed under Steven’s watch and he clearly has some measure of guilt over the matter as he continues to entertain Martin’s progressively bizarre requests.

When Steven informs Martin he has no intention of leaving his wife and family to restart his life with Martin and his mother, a bizarre request to say the least, Lanthimos raises the stakes dramatically. Like a biblical prophet with complete confidence in his convictions, Martin calmly informs Steven that one of his family members must die. And if Steven doesn’t make the choice to kill one of them it will happen sporadically and out of his control. First they will first lose their ability to walk, they will then bleed from the eyes and then die. It’s all seems preposterous, of course, until Bob wakes up one morning unable to get out of bed because his legs are numb. Steve and Anna are perplexed after their son completely checks out as normal at the hospital, but is soon admitted even though their colleagues insist his symptoms are psychosomatic. Martin’s prophecy takes an even a greater toll when Kim loses the ability to use her legs as well.

Image via Cannes

Steven’s frustrations begin to boil over as he sees no avenues to rescue his family from an inevitable fate. Anna begins investigating whether her husband was actually negligent in the death of Martin’s father (not that it matters) and Kim becomes unapologetically attached to a the same boy trying to destroy not only herself, but her family.

In many ways, this is Lanthimos’ own variation of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, a shocking morality play where there is no control, no easy choices and no happy ending. The difference is that where Haneke played with the inevitability of death Lanthimos is more focused having the horror of what you’ve just seen linger with both the audience and the characters onscreen. He doesn’t just want you to be repulsed, but emotionally devastated. A gorgeously rendered gut punch that ends up being no laughing matter.

Grade: A-

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