by MATT FADHIL & NICK CHANG
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Drama, Horror, Mystery – 2hr 1min
As med students in hospital, we’re well and truly protected from what happens when things go wrong: fudge a blood pressure reading, slip up with a needle, and you’re treated to a slap on the wrist and a P- for your SOCA. If your supervisor happened to be Yorgos Lanthimos, though, the acclaimed Greek director that gave us Dogtooth and The Lobster, you might not be so lucky. In Lanthimos’ most recent release, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, we’re offered an unflinching examination of what happens when mistakes are made and you can’t escape the consequences.
We’re introduced to Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a well-respected, lusciously-bearded cardiothoracic surgeon who’s living with a tightly-kept secret about a surgery gone deathly wrong. Steven forms an unsettling friendship with 16-year-old Martin (Barry Keoghan) – taking him out for ice cream and buying him flashy gifts. But as the two sit in a hospital cafeteria one morning, Martin turns the tables in their relationship. What ensues is a revenge tragedy of mythic proportions, played out against the backdrop of suburban modernity and hospital-grade mundanity.
Lanthimos obviously revels in keeping us unsettled. Farrell’s flat, deadpan delivery offers no clues, casting a dour light over his lunch-dates with Martin and the polished monotony of life in disturbia. The music is jarring, ominous: loud bursts mid-scene that leave you expecting a knife around every corner. Even the camera work, by cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, feels crafted for maximal dread: a two-minute slow zoom of a beating heart greets us in the first frames of the film; later, a haunting shot from above as Steven’s son collapses in the hospital lobby.
In Lanthimos’ universe there’s no escaping justice. For those meddies not well-versed in the classics (shame on you), the title of the film alludes to the Greek tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis, in which King Agamemnon is forced to atone for slaying a deer sacred to the goddess Artemis by sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia. Just like the wrathful Artemis, Martin offers his victims no hope of absolution, of redemption. Steven must make an impossible choice, and Lanthimos intends us to watch, tense, white-knuckled, as that choice is made.
With every shot, the film does a brilliant job of ramping up the tension and violence without devolving into the kind of self-inflated farce that made Aronofsky’s Mother! so unbearable. The cast excels: Nicole Kidman as Anna, icy poise unravelling; and Keoghan as Martin, reaching his manic extremes in a disturbing scene in the Murphys’ basement.
The closing scene of The Killing of a Sacred Deer provides no real catharsis: life, it seems, goes on. In an interview with The Atlantic, Lanthimos described the inspiration for the film: “he’s a doctor, and whether or not there was any fault, that kind of ambiguity, leading into impossible questions and dilemmas”. Questions of fault, justice, sacrifice, we don’t have the answers to. But we do know that the next time one of those medical insurance companies sets up a stall in Wallace Wurth offering cover against workplace liability plus a free water bottle, we’ll be signing up.