Review: The Killing of a Sacred Deer at VIFF

The Vancouver International Film Festival 2017 will be running from September 28 to October 13, and features international cinema at its finest. Check out the VIFF/Vancity Theatre website for more info, including repeat screenings!

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Let’s just say, I have two small, finger-sized bruises on my left forearm from gripping my wrists. Yorgos Lanthimos has orchestrated a most vivid and unnerving horror-slash-thriller-slash-comedy with his fifth feature, filling two hours with more than enough tension. The film offers no escape; it unwaveringly looks discomfort and consequence square in the face. The opening shot lingers on an aerial view of an open chest in surgery, the exposed heart thumping for just a beat too long. A booming soundtrack of classical music accompanies this sterile yet simultaneously gross image. Sure, look away now. If and when you choose to turn back to the screen, you might never find a moment of release.

The Killing of A Sacred Deer oozes Euripides tragedy, slowly unbuckling the power and control of our assumed patriarchal hero. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), our “hero”, is the nuclear father, a surgeon who lives a more than comfortable life with his ophthalmologist wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman) and his two talented, exemplary children Bobby (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy). Martin (Barry Keoghan) is a fatherless teen involved in an unusual friendship with Steven, who slithers his way into the Murphy family only to reveal his horrific revenge for a long forgotten offence. 

The film closely mirrors the Greek myth of the deer and Agamemnon, in which Agamemnon accidentally kills a deer in goddess Artemis’ sacred grove. The price that Agamemnon must pay is to sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. Lanthimos takes this mythical scenario and cranks up the morality volume. Martin, our sixteen-year-old, middle class stand-in for Artemis, is avenging his father’s death during a surgery performed by Steven. But instead of simply instructing him to make a sacrifice, Martin imposes bizarre forms of bodily degradation onto each of Steven’s family members: first the loss of function in the legs, next the inability to eat, and finally, bleeding from the eyeballs. The only way that Steven can avoid losing all of his family to this slow and agonizing fate is to sacrifice one of them.

The reveal of this fait accompli takes place almost halfway into the film, a strategic choice made by Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou in order for audiences to dwell in the unsettlingly reserved and masterfully performed dialogue. Colin Farrell’s stoic, hyper-articulate, desensitized persona that we saw in Yanthimos’ earlier film, The Lobster, is echoed in the performances of each character, creating an air of unease and tension in this seemingly normal world. Every character is so direct with their speech and so mechanical when they converse, which provides an absurd yet comedic tone due to its unnatural flow. The effect: a lung constricting sensation that something else is at play. And even when we are fed the big reveal, there is no relief—only the horrific realization of what Steven must do if he wants to prevent his family from being slowly reduced to eyeball-bleeding vegetables.

Was it good? Did I enjoy it? Fair question to ask before one purchases their seventeen dollar ticket. I would be lying if I said that I knew how I felt about this film. And I think therein lies Lanthimos’ intentions: for the viewer to leave with the overall discomfort of an impossible yet vividly depicted ultimatum, two bruises on their forearm, and a slight wave of nausea.

 

The Killing of a Sacred Deer opens in theatres on November 3, so don't worry if you missed it during the festival! It comes highly recommended by your friends at SAD.