J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Cincinnati is a very livable city, but it will probably never live down the shame from giving the world Jerry Springer. In contrast, a prominent cardio surgeon will be given the chance to repent for his sins through a wicked three-way Sophie’s Choice. The situation is highly surreal, but emotions are scrupulously held in check during Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.

Dr. Steven Murphy has it all: a thriving practice, a lovely ophthalmologist wife, a daughter he adores, and a son he is okay with. He is also giving back by spending time mentoring Martin, a disadvantaged teenager—except there might be something more sinister to their relationship. Nonetheless, he introduces Martin to his family, all of whom find the moody lad inexplicably charming—especially his daughter Kim.

Inevitably, Martin starts taking liberties, even attempting to fix Murphy up with his single mother. The doctor tardily tries to re-establish boundaries, but by this time the resentful teen has gained a strange hold over the Murphy family, especially Kim. Unfortunately for them all, Martin blames the Martin patriarch for the death of his father—and not without some justification. More to the point, Martin also seems to have some mystical unexplained power that will force Steven Murphy to become an active accomplice in his own karmic retribution.

Within Lanthimos’ maddening filmography, Sacred Deer is a conspicuously frustrating film. If you were blown away by The Lobster, but detested his Greek Freak films, like Dogtooth and Alps, you will find Sacred Deer sits uneasily between those two poles. Lanthimos manages to wring high tragedy out of his fantastical premise, but getting there is a bumpy ride. Problematically, it features the same extreme expressive reserve that distinguished The Lobster, but it was better suited to that dystopian universe and its absurdist rules everyone accepted at face value. In contrast, Deer is essentially set in our world. It is just viewed from acute angles.

As a result, we have to sit through a lot of mumbling and shrugging, before Lanthimos finally kicks it into gear. Yet, somehow the film mostly comes together during the chilling climax—or maybe almost, but not quite. Either way, it is a close call.

Colin Farrell similarly feels like he is repeating himself from The Lobster, but while his prior sad sack character always seemed to be screaming under his blandly nebbish exterior, Dr. Murphy really comes across as a shallow jerk, who is quiet because he doesn’t have anything to say. Likewise, Nicole Kidman seems to be recycling previous ice queen roles in films like Eyes Wide Shut, Strangerland, and, Heaven help us, Trespass. Frankly, Barry Keoghan’s sullen mouth-breathing makes it hard to believe Doc Murphy would ever bring Martin within one hundred yards of his family. At least, Alicia Silverstone hits some poignant notes while playing against time as Martin’s Mother—wow, Cher from Clueless playing a widowed mom.

Even though we are still wrestling with our misgivings, we would re-watch Sacred Deer five times than sit through just the first fifteen minutes of Alps again. Granted, this is a highly idiosyncratic film, but the ways in which Lanthimos makes it conform to the aesthetics of The Lobster actually work against it. Earning a deeply mixed review, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is still the sort of weirdness cult film fans need to see to keep current. Use your own judgment. It is now playing in New York, at the Regal Union Square downtown and the AMC Loews Lincoln Square uptown.

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