Hugo Docking

FILM REVIEW: Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Watershed cinema on Bristol’s Harbourside has a reputation for screening creative and subversive films. Lanthimos’ Killing of a Sacred Deer fits well in this setting and the film does not disappoint.

It follows Steven (Collin Farrell), a surgeon who has a bond with the son of a patient he failed to save. It becomes clear that this boy (Barry Keoghan) is not who he seems and has a sinister plan for Steven, his wife (Nicole Kidman) and their two children.

It opens with a graphic long-shot of a beating heart and sets a sinister, insidious tone which is sustained throughout the film. Prepare for two hours of feeling a creeping sense of unease, accompanied by the frustrating feeling of not being quite able to put your finger on exactly why. Is it the stilted awkward dialogue, which gives a vaguely dystopian aura to this strange world? Or is it the jarring, dissonant orchestral soundtrack that dips in and out like waves threatening to break? Despite the intensity of the film, it is littered with moments of very funny, yet deeply dark humour. A well-rounded film.

Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk) shines in his role as Martin, the psychopathic antagonist. His performance perfectly balances the contradictions of his character. He’s gormless yet charming, innocent yet inherently evil. His strange power to curse Steven’s family is never explained, which adds to the mystery of the character. There is a gut-churning moment when Martin explains his twisted, eye-for-an-eye version of justice with a bloody “metaphor”. He bites a chunk out of his own arm after doing the same to Steven. I believe villains are only truly terrifying when they are convinced that they are the virtuous one. Barry is not out for revenge, in his mind he is giving out fair, logical justice and Keoghan portrays this excellently.

Lanthimos chooses for the characters to interact in an un-naturalistic, formal, almost wooden way. The film is heavily stylised, which is slightly difficult to accept at first but overall it really adds to the atmosphere. Everything seems clean and clinical, including sex and nudity, and the script is emotionless, using intentionally flaccid language; the word “nice” is used a lot. However this does not mean the characters are devoid of emotion, on the contrary. Emotion takes place under the surface, in facial expressions and more interestingly, in the soundtrack. The orchestral music fits perfectly and covey’s characters emotions and relationships more than words might be able to.

The conflict in this film comes between logic and chaos. In a formal, step-by-step, medical way, the characters try to control the chaotic and illogical world around them. This adds to the dark humour, as often, in the real world, these situations would provoke an emotional response. Instead, when confronted with Martin’s evil ultimatum, Anna’s response is: “the most logical thing is to kill a child.” Killing of a sacred deer focuses on the medical profession and explores the dangers of treating a human life with objectivity rather than compassion. It’s shocking, unsettling and will play on your mind for days after watching.

And darkness was upon the face of the deep

(An excerpt from Dustbeard – A radio play I started writing about a lone presenter stuck in an old radio tower on a post-apocalyptic island, with only old archived tapes from the past to keep him company. He uses the tower to broadcast a weekly radio show to the unfortunate inhabitants of the island.)

It started with the agony of nothing, then the frosty terror, of SOMETHING. Experiencing something, when all you know is nothing, will shatter a sound mind into shrapnel. Everything, everyone we encountered on that first day of something was utterly terrifying. All we knew was fear and pain. Our senses were working but we didn’t understand enough to process the signals that our bodies were trying to send us…

Then for just a split second, our heads snapped up in synchronised horror,  mouths crooked and twisted and aghast as if struck by a sudden brutal divine force, it appeared we remembered everything. And we knew everything. Everything there was to know. Absolute knowledge. And then it was gone, leaving only a vague residue. A floating, half submerged feeling that there was something other than something. That we were someone, or at least used to be. All we had and all we were was a painful, raw, unbaked concept of a concept of memory and life. We stumbled around the island that day, unable to communicate or control the muscles that made our unfamiliar bodies do things. We just stumbled, and roared and moaned and rolled and shrieked.

Eventually we learnt to control our muscles and rise from the dirt and we learnt we had jaws and we started to speak and finally we could use the words that were singing round our minds but we had no idea what they were or where they came from and they were just terrifying sounds but we learnt how to recreate them, and after a while we realised that they were useful and we realised what they meant and that really we always knew. We took the shovels to our minds and tried to dig up anything from our past but we could not dig deep enough. The knowledge we craved remained buried and dormant.

People started to shrivel and die and then we ate them and learnt of the concept of hunger and of food. With full bellies we learnt that there were different types of pain, and some could be relieved, that the pain of starvation could be cured. And then with human flesh in our teeth and caught in our bloody nails we learnt of remorse, for which more flesh could not cure…