One of the benefits of film festivals like NZIFF is that cinephiles have the opportunity to sample some very different fare from what is offered on a regular basis, and if you’re looking for something to challenge you cinematically, Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer absolutely fits the bill.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is the tale of Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a cardiothoracic surgeon living with Ophthalmologist wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their two children, until a teenager (Barry Keoghan) infiltrates their lives and places them in the most difficult moral position imaginable.
Lanthimos’ follow up to the intriguing The Lobster is tense and murky, at some points an exercise in personal endurance thanks to the extreme level of tension…but it works. From the very first confronting frame of the film to the last, there is no relief. Even with moments of humour interspersed, this doesn’t act as a release valve on the tension. In fact, it serves to make such a bleak and tense atmosphere momentarily absurd- it’s something that works better than you’d think. Even in the first half hour when we get a glimpse into the lives of the Murphys and their life of beige respectability there’s a murky underbelly: Steven is a somnophiliac, preferring to engage in sex with Anna in the repose of a person under general anaesthetic, and Anna is sickeningly obsessed with their son, Bob- she coos adoringly at his hair and is effusive with her praise (while simultaneously ignoring daughter Kim).
The Killing of a Sacred Deer has Hitchcockian and Polanskian levels of tension. In fact, it shares cinematic conventions with Polanski’s Repulsion: just as Catherine Deneuve’s character in Repulsion goes from the wide-open spaces outside of her apartment to being isolated by increasing insanity within the confines of the apartment, The Killing of a Sacred Deer goes from having exteriors and scenes outside of the Murphy home to being confined inside the house as the third act ratchets up the tension rapidly towards the denouement.
There’s also an intriguing use of camerawork. There are low-angle shots from behind characters, as if we are lowly voyeurs (especially given the standing of the Murphys in the community)- how dare we watch them? Lanthimos is also unafraid to defy convention. At times, the camera will be tightly focused on the character who isn’t speaking, creating another feeling of unease.
Farrell and Kidman both deliver fantastic performances, but ample praise also needs to be heaped upon the younger members of the cast: Raffey Cassidy as daughter Kim, Sunny Suljic as Bob, and Barry Keoghan’s Martin. Thanks to Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou’s award-winning script (it won Best Screenplay at Cannes 2017), Cassidy and Suljic are not mere decorative pieces in the film, and the script demands a huge amount of intelligence and raw physicality. Barry Keoghan as Martin is by turns quirky and awkward, before delving into chilling and merciless sociopathy. Casting directors should be taking note of these three incredible young performers.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a hugely tense, dark film and utterly compelling. It’s not exactly the sort of viewing you’d pick for a rainy Sunday, but there is so much artistic and emotional payoff that it deserves a massive amount of praise. I’m going out on a limb here and saying that it is not only my pick of NZIFF 2017, but also my personal pick for film of the year.
Lynnaire MacDonald, Publicist and Founder, Film Sprites PR