The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
Written by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Dr. Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a successful heart surgeon in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has a beautiful and talented wife (Nicole Kidman) and two children, Kim and Bob. But Stephen has a secret, a secret named Martin. No one in Stephen’s family or at his hospital know about his secret meetings with Martin at a diner and their walks by the riverfront. Martin seems to have some sort of hold over Stephen. The doctor meets with him out of an obligation and endures a myriad of strange remarks and behavior from the young man. This is all connected to a sin from Stephen’s past and when he finally does get up the nerve to shrub Martin off his entire family begins to surface.
The opening shot of The Killing of a Sacred Deer sets the stage for what you are about to see. After a brief musical overture, we go from black to the image of an actual human heart, splayed open in a patient’s chest during surgery, writhing and pulsing. The camera slowly pulls up from this overhead shot but never far enough away to get this raw, visceral image off the screen. Director Lanthimos is about to put us through an intensely uncomfortable and horrific cinematic experience. This heart is one of only a few moments of gore, as Lanthimos chooses to evoke horror through profoundly strange and awkward conversations, punctuated just by sharp, dissonant strings.
Beneath the surface of what is presented on screen is a retelling of the Greek drama Iphigenia in Aulis. Without going into the details of this particular play, there is a lot of tragedy and an emphasis on the idea that the universe is cold, cruel place where no decision is truly rewarded. All choices, even random ones, come with a terrible cost in some way, at some point. Lanthimos chooses to handle his characters with the sort of emotional distance seen in the best of Stanley Kubrick. Where Denis Villeneuve may employ the magnificent cinematography of Kubrick, Lanthimos is inspired by the paranoia and claustrophobia of a picture like The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. He also erases any real sense of emotion from the proceedings which intentionally works to ratchet up tension and evoke an even more intense feeling from his audience. There is no interest in sentimentality, and the resolution of the film is genuinely horrific.
A perfect example of the sort of physicality the film evokes in the audience comes in one of the few scenes of blood or gore. Martin is in a situation where he manages to bite down on Stephen’s hand. Stephen pulls himself free, and we see blood ooze from the deep indentations of the young man’s teeth. Before Stephen can react, in almost a show of power over the situation, Martin clamps down on his own hand and moments later, blood bubbles up from beneath his lip. Then, in syncopation with the dissonant and harsh soundtrack, Martin tears a chunk of his own flesh from his arm and spits it across the room. Both Stephen and the audience in my theater shouted out in revulsion. I sense Lanthimos was out to evoke this sort of reaction. There is likely not a more raw and reaction-inducing film you’ll see in theaters this year.