The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Sam Walpole | 19/11/2017
An eerie and unsettling thriller that succeeds in building an ominous atmosphere that deviates from the norm, though it does at times border on the absurd.
From the opening scenes, there is something unnerving about The Killing of a Sacred Deer, though you cannot quite put your finger on it. There seems to be some sort of grim undercurrent bubbling under the surface. The film is the latest offering from Yorgos Lanthimos (director of The Lobster) and adapts the classical Greek myth of Ithigenia into a cruel psychological thriller.
The movie revolves around the family of a surgeon, Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), his ophthalmologist wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their children Kim and Bob. The family appear quite normal at first, and Steven and Anna appear to be stereotypical professional parents who place many demands upon their children. One gets a sense, however, that things are not exactly normal (as exemplified early on, perhaps, from Steven and Anna’s own romantic proclivities). And, indeed, very little about The Killing of a Sacred Deer is normal.
Steven’s life is also regularly interrupted by his encounters with an peculiar teenager called Martin (Barry Keoghan). They meet regularly in a diner and, again, have conversations that are seemingly banal but do not seem to be just that. These interactions become more frequent and Martin starts to insinuate himself into the lives of Steven and his family. Keoghan crafts an ominous presence that builds over the course over the first half of the film, and one cannot help but wonder what his role in what begins to occur is.
Lanthimos succeeds in creating a chilling atmosphere by developing a setting in which the most simple of human interactions seem to be preoccupied by foreboding portents of misfortune. Colours appear muted; ordinary conversations haunting and the accompanying classical score ratcheting up tension. It is not quite clear at first, however, what that tension is building to. One knows something is not right, and that something will go wrong. However, it is a subtle build-up into what is in fact not right – at least in the first part of the film.
Indeed, this unsettling psychological thriller is most effective in its more subtle moments, where the atmosphere is left to act upon the audience as it does upon the characters. Despite this, in the latter half of the film the movie goes a little too far in seeking to shock and unsettle, with the result that aspects of the plot tilt into the absurd. This ranges from scenes of sheer cruelty, through to perverse conversations that really do seem bizarre in the circumstances (including a conversation Steven has with his children’s school principal, and one between Kim and Bob). While this could be seen to reflect the desperation of the characters, these explicit moments tend to lessen the horror developed over the course of the film. This may all be part of a quest to unsettle the viewer. In many respects the film succeeds at this. However, the film is most chillingly disturbing in its more subtle moments.
One would be right to conclude that there is something not quite normal about the Murphys and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. And that, I suspect, was Lanthimos’ aim.
A uniquely eerie and disturbing thriller that is simultaneously subtle and over the top, though at times the desire to shock the audience unsettles the ominous atmosphere itself.