This Yorgos Lanthimos film, which he wrote with Ethymis Filippo, was released in 2017, but I only got around to seeing it some weeks ago. The title, “The Killing of a SacredDeer”, is never explained in the film, and only further research revealed that it was a modern retelling of the Iphigenia myth. Although I saw it some weeks ago, I’m writing about it now because its brooding resonance has stayed with me.
We meet Steven, a successful surgeon in Cincinnati, played by Colin Farrell, meeting a youth he’s friends with for lunch in a diner. The boy, Martin, is later introduced by Steven to his anesthesiologist as a friend of his daughter’s, but that’s only the first of the lies he tells. The boy is really the son of a patient of his who died during surgery.
We never flashback to the precipitating event, but it’s soon clear that Steven feels an unshakeable guilt for it, because he had been drinking the morning of the surgery.
Steven has a beautiful wife, played by Nicole Kidman, a pubescent daughter and a younger son. The film plays out as a revenge story, with Martin establishing a diabolical, charismatic relationship with the children, which he tells Steven will result in their deaths as punishment for Steven killing his father.
Martin, in a breathtaking performance by Barry Keoghan, remains an enigma even after the film. Is the boy even real, or simply the manifestation of Steven’s guilt, which is ritualized here as a kind of religious pageant?
The style is very different from the other films by Lanthimos that I’ve seen. In fact, I came across it while channel surfing, and I thought I’d stumbled upon a director who was trying to mimic Lanthimos, and doing it badly. Although the dialogue was delivered in a slow, stilted manner, which was typical of him, what puzzled me was that we were given nothing to smile about. Everything was grim, grim and foreboding. Yet the story, as it unfolded, was not only unbelievable, but ludicrously so.
After discovering that the film was actually his, I was intrigued enough to see it from the beginning. And the ending, which totally reframed the story for me, was so odd, that I saw the film again. While gripping throughout, it comes across as more of a stunt than an aesthetically coherent work.
But three scenes should be mentioned. In the first, after having dinner at Steven’s house, Martin sits with the two children in their upstairs bedroom. He describes his life at school; just some offhand chitchat. But Keoghan is mesmerizing! His quiet yet intense delivery transforms the utter banality of the scene into one of seductive menace.
But the film’s penultimate scene upends all that came before. It is like no murder I can remember seeing in a film. And finally, the final scene takes place in the same diner where Steven and Martin had lunch in the beginning.
As I said, nothing in the film is believable in a traditional way. But it evoked two memories from my past. In both, I found myself in a situation where a choice was presented to me that was so unlikely, so beyond any conceivable ability to predict from prior experience, yet which, at the same time, was so dependent upon the memory of a prior shameful act, that it seemed to be pre-ordained by a divine being.
But that is just my personal reaction. Sometimes a work of art, even a failed one, will hit you that way. If you have never had that kind of other-worldly experience I’ve described above, this film would seem a waste of your time.