It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the BFI’s 61st London Film Festival (4-15 October), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.
Xin Yi Wang on Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest chilling feature.
WARNING: This review may contain spoilers.
“You have beautiful hands.”
King Agamemnon kills a deer. He does not realise the deer he’s hunted down was sacred to the goddess Artemis, who rages against the king for his actions. In her fury, Artemis forces Agamemnon to sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigena, as punishment – a life for a life. So Iphigena dies, sacrificed for her father’s mistake.
The killing of the deer in Yorgos Lanthimos’ newest feature is both cause and effect. Surgeon Dr Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) once carried out a failed operation that resulted in the death of a man, sparking grave consequences as he suffered the wrath of the man’s son, Martin (Barry Keoghan), who believed Murphy should claim responsibility. The sacred deer is killed and the price to be paid is to sacrifice another. In its death, the other deer becomes sacred as well, claimed by God.
Lanthimos carries his distinct style from The Lobster into The Killing of a Sacred Deer, continuing his signature deadpan black comedy in an even more extreme situation. Absurdist to the core, he introduces another dystopian world, surrounded and watched by its omnipresent Big Brother antagonist. His characters speak so matter-of-factly it’s off-putting, and as the film progresses the sharp language creates a range of effects, from ridiculous humour to downright discomfort. Clearly a master of his craft, Lanthimos confidently pushes more boundaries to a definite success.
The world inhabited by our characters is clean. The streets are clean, the language is clean, the hospitals are clean, and Murphy’s hands are clean. The interior and exterior of hospitals create a constant eerie atmosphere, looming in the background while our characters interact. The only people we really meet are our main family and Martin’s family – the other characters are all part of the medical world, not escaping the motif of cleanliness. There are barely any extras roaming down the streets either – this is thoroughly an empty and sparse landscape. Thimios Bakatakis’s photography is absolutely breath-taking, creating a subtle anxiety while intricate composition and swift camera movement visualises Lanthimos’s bleak and almost alien landscape.
In an absolutely chilling (and definitive breakthrough) performance by Barry Keoghan, he transforms from a peculiar boy to a manipulative higher power, forcing the audience to feel the presence of Martin at all times. Between this and Dunkirk, Keoghan has had a hell of a year, and rightfully so. Channelling genuine creepiness and pity, he constantly lurks and watches our main family. In great utilisation of Lanthimos’s deadpan style, his calmness is brutal and consistent – to the point he is never agitated even in situations where he seemed to be in a disadvantage. He cannot be harmed. Though we do not know how, he paralyses Murphy’s family, threatening them with death if Murphy does not comply with terms. He is God in the film. Lanthimos is not subtle about that.
So an ultimatum is received: Murphy must choose to kill one of his family members, or they all die. Which child would you pick to kill? Is this a choice parents could make? Lanthimos quietly subverts the “greatness” of parental love and the bonds of family, questioning in all his cynicism about the relationship between a parent and a child. To kill a member of the family to protect the rest– is this the greatest act of love, or the worst crime to be committed? Though his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) is also threatened, she never seems to be a choice. We do not see Anna starting paralysis, and it is left ambiguous whether if she is also truly threatened. As a whole, Murphy was always going to choose between his two children.
Deer are innocent, but man is not. Why should children pay for the sins of their father? Why must the innocent suffer for the actions of the guilty? In both the original myth and the film, the father’s life is undoubtedly safe: that Murphy might kill himself seems to be out of the question. One of his children claims, “Father, you gave me my life, only you can take it away.” Though they are crazed words, the idea of parents having power over their children’s lives is a universal theme.
Children are forever subjugated to their fathers, but even kings must subjugate to God. This repressive hierarchy is a reality in culture and society. Sacrificing a child for God is not an unheard myth, and from the Binding of Isaac to the myth of Iphigena, fathers must fear God first before loving their children. One must not fight against this subjugation, and the one character who never accepts the fate of death is therefore our final sacrificial deer by “chance”.
It’s deeply uncomfortable how utterly powerless our characters are before Martin and death, just as man will always be feeble and weak against any higher power. In the final shot, they all look back at Martin, each with different emotions – hatred, judgment, shame, or even more. But they can only look: they cannot do anything to him. The audience holds its breath until the screen fades to back, and a collective silence falls.
Colin Farrell delivers another transformative performance in his second collaboration with Lanthimos, perfect with deadpan delivery. The actor-director combo complements each other so well it feels fully naturalistic, rising as one of the most exciting duos. Nicole Kidman is equally intense and a tour-de-force, her icy and cold eyes striking and powerful. Also another second collaboration in the film for Farrell and Kidman after The Beguiled, their chemistry is unquestionable. The children, Kim and Bob, played by Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic respectively, are exceptionally fantastic as well – crawling on the floor with paralysed legs has never felt so absurd. Alicia Silverstone also stands out in a minor role.
With a track list consisting exclusively of classical music – including the likes of Bach and Schubert – the music is used in such a forceful way: it is at times grandeur and operatic, and at times screeching and screaming. It jumps on you as an accomplice to the film, always grabbing your attention, a highlight on its own.
This is not a film that lets you forget any of its imagery. It etches in your memory with all of its intensity, violence and pessimism.
Gracefully built up from the beginning, The Killing of a Sacred Deer slowly accumulates to one of the most intense shots in recent memory.
It is pure madness, and it will drag you down into a complete psychological horrorshow.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer had its UK premiere on October 12th at London Film Festival. It will be out in UK cinemas on November 3rd. Trailer below.