“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” (2017)
Running Time: 121 minutes
Written by: Yorgos Lanthimos & Efthymis Filippou
Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
Featuring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Alicia Silverstone, and Bill Camp
Martin: “I wanted to say one more thing, I’m really sorry about Bob.”
Steven Murphy: “It’s nothing serious.”
Martin: “No, it is. They will all get sick and die. Bob will die, Kim will die, your wife will die, understand?”
Steven Murphy: “No, I don’t.”
It is truly amazing how quickly the critical establishment can turn against a director who at one point had an Oscar favourite in the truly genre defying classic “The Lobster” (2016) then be put upon when his next film “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” (2017) is released, not meeting expectations, not in terms of quality but what it does with narrative, plot and subject, that is the critical response. Yorgos Lanthimos is definitely a unique director with a vision that is singular, at once accessible but aloof in caring what audiences think about the end product, that is true in the case of “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”. This new film is an oddity in the best possible way, it is a drama, with elements of horror, neo-noir narrative as well as some social realism. There are so many elements of this film that I really enjoyed that any parts of it that didn’t quite mesh with me had no real effect as the style and vison are so clear that you might be thinking it has been directed by someone with far more experience.
If there has ever been a movie that could be compared to a Stanley Kubrick film from beginning to end it is “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”, a film that is filled with many of the same shots as well as musical cues that come directly from Kubrick’s own oeuvre. I do not think that Lanthimos has copied or ripped the great director off, at most it is a homage, but actually the technique used as well as the mise en scène fits the plot extremely well, I applaud him for his choices. Of course there are another aspects that are similar, in particular the way the plot shakes out, with the story starting out in one place but ending somewhere you would not see coming unless you had forewarned yourself before viewing. Before I go any further I would say this is a must watch, not only that but you should know as little as possible before going in, from the very first shot you will be shocked as well as curious to know what could come next, and how it will ultimately end.
The film is based around Steven Murphy, a skilled cardiothoracic surgeon, who is having a relationship with a teenage boy named Martin. The precise nature of their relationship is unexplained. Steven revelas to his wife Anna that Martin’s father died in a car accident ten years earlier, and that he has taken an interest in the boy to help him grieve. Over the course of the story Martin’s demands on Steven’s time grow increasingly frequent and desperate, but Steven does not reply. One morning Bob, Stevens son, awakens and finds he cannot feel his legs—he has become paralyzed. Steven rushes him to the hospital, where a full neurological examination reveals that nothing is physically wrong.
The next morning, Martin visits Bob in the hospital and demands that Steven speak to him in private. The two retreat to the cafeteria, where Martin reveals the truth: his father did not die immediately, as Steven told his wife, but during surgery that Steven himself performed after the crash. Steven failed to save Martin’s father, and the boy bluntly tells Steven that he blames the surgeon for the death. He further explains that, to “balance” the act of destroying a family, Steven must kill one of the members of his own. Martin goes on to explain that he has placed a curse upon the Murphys that will gradually kill them through a series of stages unless Steven makes his choice and murders one of them; the paralysis is the first of these four stages.
Whilst this indeed is an interesting story with a great cast, the most powerful elements are the direction, cinematography and to a lesser extent the editing. I would almost go so far as to say it the best directed film of 2017, how Yorgos Lanthimos was nominated for an Oscar for best director and Thimios Bakatakis was not nominated for best cinematography is a mystery to me. The framing of every scene is a masterclass in timing as well as perfection with each part of each frame exuding meaning for the characters involved as well as the plot. The opening if the film with the shock that is expressed through the framing of the heart surgery in progress lets the viewer know that this is not going to be a story for the faint of heart, nor will it follow conventions, so you had better get on board now. When we initially Steven walking the halls of his hospital he is in a position of absolute power, treating his anaesthesiologist like a servant, he is the King of his world, a man with no rival, this is the last time we see him in this position – the trick is to see how his framing alters throughout the film from this point to the very end.
Control also plays an important part of this film, not only with the main character or characters of Steven but of his rival Martin, as well as the secondary characters of Anna, Kim and Bob. The control that Steven has over Martin shifts throughout the film as does the control that Martin has with his family – witness the children attempting to control their parents when it comes to the choice of the film, as well as how Anna sees not only her husband for who he is, but how she treats or loves each of her children. In particular of course it is Steven who loses as well as gains the most when it comes to his life, his family’s life, his work and everyone who he comes into contact with. As with all stories about Kings there is always someone plotting or waiting to take control of the Kingdom once you are exiled or die. This is also a warped version of the heroes story who starts in equilibrium, then descends into an underworld and resurfaces to regain a form of equilibrium – as I said it is twisted.
“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is such a methodical as well as subtly evenly paced film that it requires actors who not only understand the material but the director as well, you could not do much better than the two primary actors in Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman. Both of these marvellous actors bring very different abilities as well as experience to the table, Farrell has worked wonders with the director before, while Kidman has not only blossomed into a great onscreen talent, she has also worked with some of the more original visionary directors working in any time. The cast is rounded out with Barry Keoghan as the adversery who made such an impact in Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” (2017), here he underplays his part to perfection, it will be interesting to see his career unfold in the coming years.
The control that director Lanthimos exerts over the locations, sets and backdrops is second to none, in particular the locations of the hospital as well as the family’s home. The sterility that exists within the hospital, extends to the name of it, ‘Brain and Spine Centre’, which is as close to a generically sterile name as one could think of. As is the God like power that all the Doctor’s feel inside that domain, which quickly dissipates as the narrative moves along and the true realisation of what is at stake dawns on the entire family. We move from the hospital to the carefully manicured and designed home where once again the backdrops are perfect. One great example is when an area in a conservatory is turned into a mini ward, the drapes match the beds, which match the carpeting, even the Mothers outfits match the room, it is great work on part of the production team.
In saying that this will not be a film for all, it is challenging as well as disarming, it asks questions without answering them, placing the responsibility on the viewer, not on the characters. What I love about this film is that it is an almost perfectly executed vision of what was obviously wanted, but coupled with perfect performances from hand-picked actors, this is a real treat with some warnings for an audience who are not prepared for this story.