By Jack Dignan
The most common type of fear is that of the unknown. You walk home late at night, well after the sun has set, and you get the feeling that perhaps you’re not as alone as you thought. Yet you can’t prove it. Frequently, cinema turns our heads towards more supernatural beings; the ones we’ve feared since a young age. But as we progress through life, these beings become less plausible in our minds than they once did. What takes over and becomes true fear is that which we cannot control.
I can’t speak from experience, but becoming a parent would change one’s view on life. Ideally, the parent would want to do anything they can to protect their children, but what happens when they need to choose to sacrifice somebody they love in order to let the rest of their family live? Could you do it? Could you choose between your children or your wife? It’s a confronting moral dilemma, one nobody would want to be in, but it’s this disturbing scenario that Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou latch onto with The Killing of a Sacred Deer, their follow up to 2015’s Oscar-nominated The Lobster.
Colin Farrell’s Steven Murphey does his best to be a family man. He’s hard working and loving, while enforcing rules that allow equality throughout the household so as not to put all of life’s jobs on himself and his wife Ana (Nicole Kidman). Through his job as a surgeon, Steven meets a lonely, troubled teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan). At first, Martin seems to get along well with Steven’s family, particularly with his children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic), but soon, his children are hospitalised, and it’s not too long after that where Martin proposes an unthinkable dilemma to Steven.
Life here feels like it’s on an alternate plane of existence. The dialogue is deliberately stilted and somewhat artificial, creating a constant sense of unease and mistrust. Every character’s most humane moments derive from bursts of anger and frustration. It’s here where their dialogue flows in a more natural, if not equally unsettlingly way. But there’s something inherently fascinating within every line spoken. A mere exchange about watches is as funny as it is disturbing, and it’s a pattern that Lanthimos and Filippou follow through with until the film’s very end.
You’re constantly thrown onto the edge of your seat, anxiously and impatiently awaiting a conclusion you know you don’t want to see, but one you can’t turn away from. The events that transpire in this movie are going to turn some people off, and that’s completely understandable. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a grim, unsettling and deeply disturbed movie that oozes with horror, despite never falling into that genre. It’s an endlessly depressing ride that left me shaking in my seat with jaw dropped, consistent all the way up until its silent, harrowing final shot.
Yet the biggest surprise with this film is just how funny it can be. There’s a strange sense of humour injected throughout, where you’re never sure if you’re allowed to laugh, and if you do, you instantly feel bad about it. One scene depicts Kim begging her dying brother to let her keep his MP3 player if he dies. Another scene sees Steven dragging his paralysed son around the hospital by the waist in an unsuccessful attempt to get him walking again, all before describing an instance when he was younger in which he jacked off his father in his sleep. Nothing is treated as a comedy. A lot of it may even go over audience’s heads, but there’s certainly a black sense of humour afoot.
It takes a very special cast to make this work as well as it does, but they all pull through, especially Colin Farrell and Barry Keoghan, who returns to the big screen after gaining mainstream recognition in this year’s Dunkirk. Their shared scenes are wild and unpredictable, where both characters seem to have unspoken issues buried deep inside. The story is layered and deep, with dark undertones that are brought out at a rather slow pace. Act one is drawn out slightly, but the build up is necessary, even if a little tedious, and it’s the truly remarkable performances that allow it to leap off the page and translate expertly onto the big screen.
A few spoiler-filled scenes I can’t discuss here aren’t as impactful as I would’ve liked, one extended sequence in particular, but they all add to the ever-lasting mood of the film. Not every question gets answered, but part of the terror is that they don’t need to be. It’s all one big, grim and haunting nightmare that I’m unlikely to ever forget.
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