‘Sacred Deer' demands sacrifice from its characters and audience
Against a black screen, operatic music swells. Then, in a flash, a graphic and lengthy close-up of open-heart surgery consumes the screen. This shocking scene warns viewers from the start that “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is not for the queasy. In this psychological horror revenge story, director Yorgos Lanthimos transplants the nerve-shredding premises of ancient Greek tragedy into the 21st century to tell a discomforting story of the futility of control and the perils of denial.
Steven Murphy is a heart surgeon with a successful career, a big house, an ophthalmologist wife, Anna, and two high-achieving children, Kim and Bob. For the past six months, he’s been spending time with Martin, an off-kilter teenager in need of a father figure. The relationship is strange, but Steven appears to have it under control. Then, one morning, Bob wakes up with paralyzed legs. The doctors can’t find a cause or a cure. But since Martin created this curse, he knows the cause and controls the outcome. Since his father died on the operating table under Steven’s watch, Martin feels it’s only fitting that Steven, as a father, makes a “Sophie’s Choice” as penance for his sins. Steven must choose whom of his blood to kill — Anna, Kim or Bob. If Steven can’t choose, the three of them will display increasingly alarming symptoms that will ultimately result in death.
The power of “Sacred Deer” is only possible thanks to fantastic performances from the star-studded cast. As Steven, Colin Farrell is one of the most narcissistic, dishonest, control freak fathers ever put on film. Steven is an irritating, pathetic character, but in his mind, he is never at fault and always the most important. Nicole Kidman continues her fiery comeback year in the role of Anna. Steven’s equal in running the household, Anna has high expectations of her family, encouraging hard work and personal responsibility. What makes the character fascinating is how level-headed, realistic and even merciful she is in the midst of Martin’s curse. Unlike Steven, she realizes the deep hole they’re all in. She doesn’t want to irritate the situation further, as she’s aware of the curse’s inevitable outcome.
Rising star Barry Keoghan shows his range as Martin, a psychopath who relishes his mission of cutting Steven down to size. With a monotonous voice, electric blue eyes and an unsettling poker face, Martin is a terrifying hellion who lays out his terms and conditions, then makes himself an observer of its resulting insanity. Raffey Cassidy is lovely as 14-year-old Kim, a restless music lover who delivers a haunting a capella rendition of Ellie Goulding’s celebration song “Burn” early on in the film. Alicia Silverstone is a riot in her brief appearance as Martin’s lovesick widowed mother, which includes her awkwardly sucking Steven’s hand and insisting to him, “I won’t let you leave until you try my tart.”
Lanthimos’ screenplay, co-written with Efthymis Filippou, refuses to provide any initial backstory to the characters, encouraging the audience to keep watch for clues. The actors deliver their dialogue in a deadpan, matter-of-fact format designed to evoke both unease and rapt attention. Thimios Bakatakis’ cinematography pays homage to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” with its unsettling gliding through the hallways of the hospital, as does the score, whose selections call to mind horror classic’s grinding, shrieking style.
“Live or die. Make your choice.” While that iconic quotation originated in 2004’s “Saw,” it applies disturbingly well to “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” Both films depict characters making heartrending choices that require enormous sacrifice to appease a deity-like figure. A morality play that’s not afraid to get weird, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” takes great pleasure in mind-screwing its willing audience into frozen shock.
Rating: 4 / 5 Stars
'The Killing of a Sacred Deer' is rated R and playing in theaters now. Watch the trailer below:
SUBSCRIBE: http://bit.ly/A24subscribe From writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos and starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, and Alicia Silverstone. The Killing of a Sacred Deer - Now Playing.
More from The Rice Thresher
Women artists get their spotlight with Foltz Fine Art Gallery’s “Voices Linger: Women Artists in Texas.”
Sights, sounds, tastes, colors and cultures of Africa highlighted the Houston AfriFest on Saturday at Houston Baptist University, hosted by the Nigerian-American Multicultural Council.
In celebration of its 50th anniversary, Rice Cinema has begun its new year-long screening series, “Low-Fi: Analog Deep Cuts from the Archive.” Every Thursday night at 7 p.m., film enthusiasts from across Houston can gather in the Rice Media Center to experience obscure independent films housed in the Rice Cinema film and video archive as well as analog films contributed by local cinema art institutions.