THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017): Sprawled Like Buckshot

Greek writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos is a man known for his sterile, sleek and odd productions. Two of his earlier films Dogtooth and The Lobster distinctly separated themselves from the real world. Dogtooth baked this into the premise, as it centers around a family that isolates its children from the modern world outside. The Lobster feels distinctly like an alternate universe where courtship is far more cold and impersonal. With Lanthimos’ newest film The Killing of a Sacred Deer however, that line seems to be far more blurry. We see Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) in a world firmly planted in 2017 America. Of course, this is a world that admittedly can seem alien and distant given the daily barrage of awful events.

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This seems to be part of the commentary that Yorgos is getting across. Murphy is a man who often desires power of others. Initially it’s the general superiority of being a man of science. A doctor who knows how to handle one of the vital organs of the human body: the heart. His identity is entrenched on knowing more than others and being the patriarch of his family. It’s something that Farrell shows off in his initially pent up performance during the first hour or so. There’s a delicate yet firm hand Farrell applies toward the other members of the family. He holds a stern hand yet distant hand on his children (Sunny Suljic and Raffey Cassidy) by having them do specific chores on a regular basis. Everyone has their place and disrupting it clearly upsets him. He also treats his wife Ann (Nicole Kidman) as prey in their sexual encounters. She lies still as if she’s under anesthesia as he pounces on her, showing his work does leave the office on a psychological level that keeps her humanity at a distance.

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It’s not subtle, but The Killing of a Sacred Deer shows right off the bat that there’s a weird order that can’t be disrupted for the Murphy household. Something that Martin (Barry Keoghan) barges into. The initial relationship that Martin has with Murphy comes off as a divorced father visiting his son. This is meant to translate to a mentor-mentee type molding, but the pity Murphy shows Martin is clearly the type that has the older man using this young boy. Not in an overtly disturbing way, but in a power struggle fashion. Murphy clearly sees him as a feeble socially awkward plaything under his guidance. He wants to mold Martin into something more because of how unassuming Martin is. He desires to make someone in his own image who he thinks has no direct image of his own.

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So therein lies the biggest asset of The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Barry Keoghan as Martin pulls off one of the most intriguing performances of the year. For the first half, he’s so unassuming. His initial moments feel like he has some form of neurodevelopmental disorder. Thus, when he slowly takes over the situation from the manipulative arm of Dr. Murphy, there’s almost a bit of satisfaction mixed in with the unsuspected terror. Martin never really changes his behavior, but the flat deadpan delivery that once seemed awkward now seems purposeful. It’s a quick statement of fact that challenges Murphy’s perception of what is real and what isn’t. Allowing Farrell’s irate mannerisms that follow to be understandable and enraging at the same time. Martin takes that power struggle and turns it on Murphy so fast he doesn’t even realize it until far too late in the game. Murphy is under the thumb of Martin’s poetic justice and won’t get from under it until Martin is satisfied. It’s a mesmerizing performance from Keoghan that mirrors Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in terms of gradual fear. The oddly insestuous undertones of his relationship with his glassy eyed mother (Alicia Silverstone) and a missing father don’t help things.

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Now, where the problem lies is in the comparison. While Martin’s closed off nature is chilling and gradually mesmerizing, it weirdly feels too similar to how cold and detached the Murphy family ultimately is. Particularly with the two children. That detachment may make sense of why they grow fond of Martin, especially since daughter Kim starts to fancy him in a young romantic way. Yet, their detachment makes very vital decisions near the finale feel so underwhelming. These kids feel like extras who are far too late to audition for Children of the Damned. Even Kidman – who initially shows off the type of raw sexual edge the recalls her underrated work in Eyes Wide Shut – grows stale and lifeless, not cold and desperate as the film seemingly wants her to be. Thus as a group, the Murphys never feel like a family or even an engaging gonzo satiric version of it. They feel like strangers in a room, but without the actual human qualities that would make that kind of punch take shape. Especially as we see the normal world all around and no consequence is really given for these actions. It just seems to open more doors for questioning than needed, even in a film where a huge tenant is based in a vague “curse.”

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer in the title doesn’t refer to a doe or buck, but is meant to give the idea that these pedestals a family is put under. It’s key to the kind of curse Martin puts on this family and the spell he weaves to break them apart. On that more clinical level, I can see what Lanthimos is striving for. A bitter take on the societal roles we place family into and the bitter ends that can meet when something threatens that reality. Yet, there’s no real foot in normalcy within the Murphys to make that have solid footing. Sure, they do seemingly normal things like water plants or go to choir practice, but it all seems so mechanical and displayed. This is obviously somewhat intentional, but only goes so far to get the satiric point across. When we have a clear grounding in the real world, there needs to be some kind of actual human emotion from these characters to ground the coldness that follows, yet it seems to be missing from the onset. There’s not build up to the desperation we’re supposed to get as the situation grows dire for this family.

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It’s all really in how Lanthimos frames the painting. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a horror film much in the vein of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Lots of aerial views from above gazing or long track shots from far ahead to show our characters inhabiting a space. Often times feeling like the presence of Martin is watching over these people as they try to make sense of the nonsensical. Cold, lifeless, detached. All while missing the bombastic emotion that gave something for the audience to grasp onto. Lanthimos mainly tries to make up for this with incredibly obvious music stings that Kubrick similarly used, though in place of visual ways to show off tension in the story rather than the ways Kubrick complimented his visuals. If anything, the more silent moments of oddly comic disturbing imagery works best. Such as when the children begin to crawl on the floor with numb legs, capturing intriguing levels of unsettling.

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So, the tug and pull of The Killing of a Sacred Deer is often unnerving in its underwhelming nature. Yet, stewing on it further and further gives the sterility more intrigue. It’s a story of asymmetry attacking the symmetric. Allowing those who can’t handle change to face it directly and not know why it’s there. In that way, the film itself challenge perceptions of reality and forces one to face it head on. That initial question might become a bit tone deaf as the ending draws closer, but there’s a lingering sense of dread and disruption that sticks with you as Barry Keoghan’s open mouth gaze haunts the soul. Not for his perceived social awkwardness, but by doubting the potential of those we see as different. A human feeling that could get us pounced on as our bubble is popped into trillions of soapy pieces. The Killing of a Sacred Deer‘s placement in our modern times does hurt the subversion by lacking foundation. Yet, there’s plenty of chilling off kilter scares that will burn in the synapses for some time.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Lost mp3 Players

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