Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Alicia Silverstone
Running time: 121 minutes
Release date: November 3rd
The myth of Iphigenia inspires the title of Greek writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer. After angering the goddess Artemis, who then thwarted his fleet’s departure to Troy, King Agamemnon was ordered to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to appease her wrath, or face losing the war outright. While not a direct adaptation of this story, The Killing of a Sacred Deer retains the idea of personal sacrifice as a consequence for irresponsibility, and straight-up magical shenanigans. Its title unnerves from the first, and that feeling never lets up throughout its entire 121 minute run-time.
Colin Farrell stars as Stephen, a husband and father of two children who live a comfortable, traditional middle-class existence. Stephen also has a not-so-traditional, not-so-comfortable, relationship with a teenage boy, Martin (a genuinely phenomenal, bone-chilling Barry Keoghan). Stephen is clearly beholden to him for some tragic reason, though we’re not initially sure why. After introducing Martin to his family, the boy’s behaviour becomes more intrusive and sinister. When warned off, he invokes a devastating form of revenge, and Stephen must make an unthinkable choice to save his family. To say much more would be to spoil quite how cruel, unusual, and multi-faceted a punishment Stephen faces. Suffice to say, this film draws it out with masochistic relish, never releasing its audience from the bone-deep horror at its heart.
It’s easy to see how this could have been a more traditional horror flick. There’s a ‘safer’ version of this film in which, for example, Martin kidnaps Stephen’s family and enacts his revenge through physical violence or psychological warfare; or where the ethical dilemma at its heart is resolved, not by making a difficult choice, but finding a loophole to avoid doing so; a deus ex machina. But there’s no God in the machine, or indeed, anywhere else in this film. It’s just Stephen, and his human frailty that brought him into this situation shows him helpless to act, even as the emotional and physical well-being of his family starts to collapse. The horror in The Killing of a Sacred Deer is truly psychological, derived as much from key human weaknesses as its darkly magical-realist tendencies and (only very occasional) gruesome visual imagery.
The performances are astonishing, especially given the particular and peculiar mode in which writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos operates. The characters, for the most part, speak in the same kind of blunt, stilted formality as in Lanthimos’ previous hit The Lobster. The noticeable exception is Nicole Kidman as the mother, who for the most part speaks and behaves like a normal human being, making the moments in which she regresses into this tone even more striking and upsetting. On a similar note, there’s something Beckettian about the way the characters physically comport themselves. The mother playing dead as a gesture of foreplay, the children doggedly dragging themselves around by their arms, Martin’s languid spaghetti-eating, all add to the film’s oddity.
This may sound completely alienating, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer may miss the mark for some. For others, the prolonged sense of dread may simply be too much. Yet, for fans of Lanthimos’ previous work, its perfectly-constructed, utterly weird characters make the film as completely compelling as its novel premise. The Killing of a Sacred Deer evokes horror influences across the spectrum. Wide shots and slow takes of awful anticipation evoke Stanley Kubrick as much as Michael Haneke. At times, this film is almost unbearable to watch and yet, one is helpless to look away. This is the case even if what’s on screen is not, out of context, an upsetting image. One everlasting scene of two characters riding an escalator still beads my forehead in sweat to think about.
The resolution of the ethical dilemma at the heart of the film is difficult to predict and impossible to forget. Following Prufrockian procrastination, the camera lingers on the devastating choice made by Stephen, who has finally forced a moment to its crisis. And was it worth it, after all?