It’s not often that an art-house thriller comes together so perfectly to create an unsettling horror capable of antagonising your thoughts even after you’ve walked out the cinema doors. But that is exactly what The Killing of a Sacred Deer does, the fifth feature film of Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos. As a darkly comic rendition of an ancient Greek tragedy, the myth of Iphigenia, Lanthimos creates this body of work with a sinister flair that explores the role of accountability and vengeance in our modern world.
Renowned and clinically detached cardiologist Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), shares an unlikely friendship with teenage boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan) drawn together by tragic circumstances. It is their strange relationship, which swiftly moves from uncomfortable to threatening, that forms the foundation for the film’s psychological tension. A tension that is built up from a curse brought down on Steven’s family for his carelessness, not as revenge, but balance.
As in Lanthimos’ previous film, the Oscar-nominated The Lobster, his peculiar preference for characters to converse in dry observations and staccato sentences is an awkward laugh which serves as a buffer for the film’s more unsettling tension. This includes trivial subjects about absolutely anything, from a teenage girl sharing she’s just got her first period, to whether or not someone prefers leather or metal watch straps. The brutal honesty of the dialogue can often be uncomfortable to sit through, but nonetheless, fits with the horror and absurdity of the story in its entirety.
With Lanthimos’ second collaboration with Farrell, the duo seem to be a perfect match as no other actor can produce laughs from one-liners and facial expressions that would otherwise be meaningless outside the context of the film. His seamless transition from comically serene to manic rage is what truly gives the film an emotional anchor, in comparison to the other, often passive, characters. But truly as with every Lanthimos cast, all performances are their own success. While the lack in emotion can be confronting, each character is performed in the best way to suit the story. Even Steven’s children (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Sulijic) are both incredible, as they individually make each scene their own, never once being outshone by the moments they shared with Farrell or Kidman.
But it is Keoghan who owns the show. Martin may be framed as a monster, but Keoghan plays him as a messenger from God – a referee – where any hate against him seems ill placed. He’s the embodiment of teenage awkwardness – he’s just an acne-faced kid who was looking to piece his life together.
The music within the film worked as a character of its own. Screeching violins and harsh orchestrated sounds deafen the dialogue spoken between characters, as the intensity of its chords added a layer of suspense to this unfettered nightmare. Paired with the cinematography, crafted by Thimios Baratakis (who also shot The Lobster), the film is a stylistic treat, brought together with a chilling colour palette of blues, blacks, and whites. Each scene framed by long, slow pans that follow characters through narrow hallways and door frames in an unsettling manner, as if we’re patiently waiting, watching, for the next disaster to strike.
In the end, the film is likely to polarise audiences. And while the main criticism against The Killing of a Sacred Deer seems to be its sound logic, it doesn’t seem to hold much weight to it as logic and reasoning is the very thing these characters are looking for. With no monsters in sight, this unsettling horror is the product of skilful filmmaking as Lanthimos once again proves himself to be a brilliant auteur.
ReviewScore: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Killing of a Sacred Deer screened at Melbourne International Film Festival