The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) (Review)

The Killing of a Sacred Deer crafts an excruciating atmosphere, clawing its way, mercilessly, under your skin over a shocking, almost blood-curdling 121 minutes. It is an unforgiving, unflinching and taut psychological horror-thriller that paints a stark and striking portrait of revenge and reprisal. You will not be able to shake Yorgos Lanthimos' latest twisted delight for quite some time, playing on your mind and in your conscious for days. The other thing I personally could not shake was why I couldn't make up my mind on it for so long. Even now, it's difficult to explain how I feel about The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

Steven Murphy's attempts to introduce his protégé of sorts, Martin (Barry Keoghan), to his family - made up of his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and son Bob (Sunny Suljic) - seems well-meaning on the surface. But, when their relationship becomes more transparent, Steven is offered a deadly ultimatum that pushes him to make a decision no one should ever be required to make. Sacred Deer works more effectively the more blind you are to its concept, so you'll have to take my word for it that it really is a choice no sane person would ever want to make - and please excuse the ambiguity this review is seeped in, because I will enshroud it in as much mystery as possible.

Essentially, Sacred Deer takes an ancient tale of revenge and justice and transports it into a 21st century America setting, with Ellie Goulding picked to score it. Lanthimos and Efthymis Filppou's script has Greek mythology woven throughout its rich tapestry in such a subtle, sophisticated manner that truly elevates the film to greatness and prestige. Already, the creation has proven to be divisive with general audiences, provoking varied reactions in a similar manner to the likes of mother! and It Comes At Night. "It's a metaphor", tells one character and he ain't half wrong; while it's not quite as metaphorically-heavy as the aforementioned Jennifer Lawrence and Darren Aronfosky project, it generates an air of higher-intelligence, more so than your typical horror fare tends to offer. Despite taking clear influence from Agamemnon and borrowing from history's other Greek mythologies - with death being answered with death - it is given free reigns to twist and turn and distort as it pleases, unshackled from convention, to the glee of the film's ardent supporters.

Sacred Deer conjures a dizzying blend between the brittle intensity of the central concept (one so very close to being totally unstomachable) with a dry, dark deadpan humour that is wonderfully alienating and awkward throughout. It is a drama, a thriller, a horror and a black comedy in one jaw-dropping package; so many genre and tonal elements would overwhelm most feature-lengths but there's a carefully constructed balance that prevents it from falling to pieces. Lanthimos and Efthymis  stunning script shows frequent signs of imploding, but that's the very point - the situations our characters are in is almost other-worldly, seconds away from consuming them all. They're sitting on a time bomb and that unpredictable and volatile nature ensures the film drags you to the edge of your seat and pins you down, unable to move or peel your eyes away from the crumbling chaos.

Lanthimos' direction is antiseptic, purposely polished to within an inch of its life; the visual cleanliness only seeks to accentuate the true vileness of the thematic content and proposal. Everything has its place so when something is missing or lacking, you feel it profoundly - it's suitably uneasy. The direction is reminiscent of Kubrick's The Shining, swapping the hotel for the hospital and slowly creeping, prowling at low levels, stalking these characters and ready to pounce on them like predators on their prey. Thimios Bakatakis' cinematography is horribly, brilliantly cold and austere, making the most of the beauty in the brutality with striking, powerful imagery laced within.

Sacred Deer has a number of extraordinary performance to help helm the madness, with both Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman delivering reliably impressive performances and Barry Keoghan following up his terrific turn in Dunkirk with another career-kickstarter. Farrell is tremendous as a Surgeon carrying a heavy weight on his shoulders, with his demons finally catching up with him; as in The Lobster, he is thoroughly engaging in an off-beat but recognisable, obviously human role. He may sound dry and monotonous but he conveys a great deal of meaning, from the fearful to the deadly: one conversation, in which he shares his 'secret', is so outrageous, but delivered so plainly, that you will search the auditorium for reaction. My whole body seized in this moment but didn't unfurl for the rest of the run-length.

Kidman, on an outstanding run recently between her Oscar-nominated role in Lion, her confident control in The Beguiled and Emmy-winning slot in Big Little Lies, is equally as sensational here. She is gracious in a role that rarely demands grace, poised and headstrong in a role that could have seen her crack. It's a testament to Lanthimos' talent that so early into his career he can attract these marquee names to his unique, unconventional projects. Kidman possesses so much steely composure to being with, but it ever-so-slightly cracks with each passing minute as we descend deeper and deeper into darkness, closer and closer to that nerve-shattering resolution that will leave its mark like blood on white. Kidman has been on fire lately - but she may burn the very brightest here.

Wonderfully unsettling, Keoghan is sickeningly great and utterly fascinating as Martin. Triggering a schismatic wave of events, the young actor makes such an impact on the story with a performance that indicates his fantastic supporting turn in Dunkirk wasn't a fluke; he really is here to do incredible things and a real talent set to take Hollywood by storm. Chilling and gut-clenching, he delivers one of the most affecting, enthralling, menacing character interpretation of the year, mastering the deadpan humour and feverish intensity in stunning measures. Co-stars Cassidy and Suljic are two beyond-their-years additions to the film, making this one of the most finely-tuned ensembles of the year, in a film that demands so much from its stars. Cassidy's haunting version of Burn will stay in your head for days, as well the innocence in Suljic's puppy-dog eyes.

Sacred Deer's magnitudinous soundtrack is superbly atmospheric, oozing with an intensity that makes it such an emotionally-punishing watch. The composer-collection is grand and bold, sonically unnerving and perfectly complimentary of the themes, script, direction and performances. Appropriately jarring, from the eerie choir to the building orchestra, the sound is just as important as the visual here and a stunning cacophony of the multiple senses and feelings experienced here.

Five days out from my first watch of The Killing of a Sacred Deer and I think I can say I enjoyed it - as much as you can enjoy a film as dark as this. It struck me as oddly cold at the time, calculating to a fault, and while I left the screening visibly shaking and in actual pain from tensing so much, something held me back. I couldn't fully invest and absorb myself into this incredibly-orchestrated world, for a reason I still cannot pinpoint or define. I'm absolutely certain a second watch will cement my love for this film, as it is definitely a film that benefits from distance, but it didn't quite reach the end-of-year-list-shattering-heights I expected it to. Again, that second viewing is scheduled for next week, so I will update you accordingly.

Lanthimos' The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a sadistic exploration of revenge and retribution, with an unforgivable bite, pervading malice and with one of the most brutal conclusions you will ever lay eyes on. It builds dread like nobody's business, wringing an immense out of intensity out of its central premise to gut-clenching, heart-wrenching effect. It pushes boundaries, perhaps not as furiously as The Lobster, with Lanthimos' signature style folded through and his keen eye for detail and metaphors sophisticated in their incorporation. Boasting a phenomenal band of performances - and affirming that Farrell and Kidman make quite the duo - it's admirable, bold and creative work, warts and all, that you should appreciate. It will hopefully improve further with even more distance too, but one things for sure after first watch alone - you won't forget The Killing of a Sacred Deer.


Summary: The Killing of a Sacred Deer is an extreme, sadistic, brutal and unforgiving cinematic experience, clawing its way, mercilessly, under your skin. It's utterly impossible to shake. It benefits from distance but one things for sure on first watch - you won't forget the heart-stopping, nerve-shredding, gut-clenching Killing of a Sacred Deer.