The Killing of a Sacred Deer


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“We don’t know how to make a straightforward comedy or a straightforward thriller or horror film. This is what we know how to do.”[1] Yorgos Lanthimos there, somewhat stating the obvious in a recent interview about his new film The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a deadpan, macabre, morbidly funny riff on the age-old idea of the sins of a father being visited upon his family. The latest in a string of absurdist arthouse curios from the Greek director of Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011) — the “we” refers to regular co-writer Efthymis Filippou — the film follows Lanthimos’s unexpectedly successful English language debut The Lobster

(2015) and sees him re-uniting with that film’s star, Colin Farrell. Cast as a heart surgeon married to Nicole Kidman’s optometrist, their possibly-happy/possibly-not life together (it’s left deliberately ambiguous) is soon shattered by a malevolent teen called Martin (Barry Keoghan) whose complex relationship with Farrell’s Stephen results in a mysterious, paralysing illness being visited upon Stephen’s children.

If that sounds like the plot of a supernatural Stephen King chiller or an outré spin on one of the many domestic revenge thrillers that dominated mainstream cinema in the 1980s and 1990s — think bunny boiling classic Fatal Attraction (Dir. Adrian Lyne, 1987) or Scorsese’s Cape Fear remake (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 1991) — the film subverts expectations in both respects with Lanthimos’s now familiar Brechtian distancing techniques. Characters in his films speak in a sort of affectless monotone, the cadences of their speech patterns making them sound like automatons repeating dialogue with no understanding of what the words mean. It’s jarring but effective, eliminating empathy for the characters and forcing audiences to look for meaning in the subtext of the script and the subtleties of the actors’ performances.

But befitting his nationality, Lanthimos also draws from Greek myths. In both Dogtooth (about a delusional patriarch who’s raised his children in a cloistered environment so that they know nothing of the outside world) and The Lobster (a parable about loneliness and love in which the terminally single are transfigured into animals as punishment for their failure to meet someone), the filmmaker played around with aspects of Oedipus and Tiresias. With The Killing of a Sacred Deer, he explicitly references the tragedy of Iphigenia right there in the title, then has a minor character handily name-check the classical Euripides play that has helped the story endure. In the film, a modified version the play’s central dilemma — after killing a sacred deer, King Agamemnon is required to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the goddess Artemis — is thrust upon Farrell’s well-to-do surgeon, Stephen Murphy. It comes in the from of an ultimatum —delivered by Keoghan’s magnificently creepy Martin — for an implied but denied mistake during a routine surgical procedure on Martin’s father. It’s an incredibly dark and unsettling moment, but ever the cinematic jester, Lanthimos offsets it by also giving the movie Groundhog Day (Dir. Harold Ramis, 1993) plenty of prominence in his exploration of Stephen’s increasingly limited options in this relentlessly bleak and deterministic world.  

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Such pop culture reference points are a running motif in Lanthimos’s work. One of the most amusing aspects of his breakthrough film Dogtooth was the way in which watching illicitly procured VHS copies of Rocky (Dir. John G Avildsen, 1976) and Flashdance (Dir. Adrian Lyne, 1983) fractured the twisted reality of his secluded protagonists. It’s amusing to think of this in terms of Lanthimos’s own development as a filmmaker and the rise of the so-called Greek Weird Wave that Dogtooth’s success — winning the Cannes 2009 Un Certain Regard prize; an Academy Award nomination for best foreign language film — helped galvanise.[2] Indeed, his work does reflect his own introduction to cinema: growing up in Athens he was a casual film fan at best — age-appropriate for seeing Indiana Jones films, Bruce Lee movies and the collected out-put of John Hughes first time round. It was only when he saw the work of Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson in his late teens that he was inspired to enrol at film school.[3]  

Nevertheless, with The Killing of A Sacred Deer compounding The Lobster status as a minor box-office hit (one that also picked up a belated Oscar nod for best original screenplay earlier this year), he’s edging ever-closer to the mainstream. Or more accurately: the mainstream (or at least the arthouse end of the mainstream) is edging ever closer to him, ensuring that his name alone — like Lynch, Von Trier and Haneke before him — will soon preclude the need to explain just what sort of movies he makes.  

Alistair Harkness
Film Critic, The Scotsman

November 2017 


                 

[1] Yorgos Lanthimos, quoted by Jacob Stolworthy, ‘'I don't know how to make a straightforward film’, Independent, 1 November 2017: http://www.independent.co.uk/a...

[2] Steve Rose, ‘Attenberg, Dogtooth and the weird wave of Greek cinema’, The Guardian, 27 August, 2011: https://www.theguardian.com/fi...

[3] Independent

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