A revenge tragedy looms in The Killing of a Sacred Deer

by James Robins / 03 December, 2017

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A hell-bent teen is at the heart of a tense revenge tragedy in quiet suburbia.

In his films Dogtooth and The Lobster, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos refined a style that made a virtue of the skewed and the upended. His worlds are insular, eerie and strange. He possesses the power to overturn all your mental furniture from the first frame.

Partly, this is down to the way his actors deliver their dialogue. Each line is spoken in a perfunctory, robotic manner, with only the vaguest hint as to the true feelings behind them. That same stilted manner is present in Lanthimos’s latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a sleek machine of doom and disquiet.

The story involves a successful surgeon named Steven (Colin Farrell), who meets regularly with a teenager called Martin (Barry Keoghan) for ice cream and chats. Speculation clouds their relationship. Is Steven grooming Martin? Or is it the other way around?

The answer lies in guilt – botched surgery, a life taken. Martin is invited to Steven’s home, which he shares with his wife (a formidably sane Nicole Kidman) and two children. A revenge tragedy looms, played out against the plush fixtures of quiet suburbia.

Much of the film’s tension springs from learning Martin’s baleful plan early on, then waiting to see what awful choices result.

As a villain, Martin is far more frightening than the cartoon monsters of A Nightmare on Elm Street or It. Keoghan (Dunkirk) was no doubt cast for his face, which, to put it delicately, is distinctive.

And still, there’s that dialogue. Some people may find it completely ridiculous, but everyone else at the screening I attended met it with gales of sniggering. Laughter in the face of such incongruity seems only natural, and Lanthimos has often laced his horrors with black comedy.

Yet I suspect laughter is also a way of dispelling the deep sense of unease that The Killing of a Sacred Deer induces. It’s a way of keeping dread at arm’s length. Under Lanthimos’s surreal spell, resistance can’t last long.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

This article was first published in the November 25, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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