8 Aug 2017

The Killing of a Sacred Deer: A perverse and enchanting cinematic transgression

10:50 am on 8 August 2017

The A-list cast may draw in the crowds, but the latest from Yorgos Lanthimos is not for the faint of heart.

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Photo: NZ International Film Festival

Photo: NZ International Film Festival

There is something wonderful about seeing a not very nice film in a big room full of people who somehow missed the memo on the actual subject matter. I fondly recall the walkouts during Melancholia, embarrassed tittering in Love 3D and, most memorably, the woman behind me who fainted and had to be carried away during The Tribe (hope you’re OK, whoever you are).

No one walked out of the screening of The Killing of a Sacred Deer that I attended, nor did anyone faint. Instead, from the moment the film opened with an extreme close-up of a pulsing heart exposed in someone’s open chest cavity in the midst of surgery, the audience seemed glued to their seats by tension.

The latest from Greek director and Cannes darling Yorgos Lanthimos, The Killing of a Sacred Deer tells the story of Steven, a successful surgeon played by Colin Farrell who, along with his ophthalmologist wife Anna (played by an electric Nicole Kidman) and two overachieving tweenage children, lives a life of sedate luxury in the suburbs. Yet, as is the case with all idyllic domesticity, it is not to last and, as Steven’s budding-yet-unlikely friendship with a strange, sinister 16-year-old boy grows, so too do bad things start to happen. Very bad things.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is only the second English language film from Lanthimos after 2015’s The Lobster and, written by frequent collaborator Efthymis Filippou in the same stilted, banal vernacular, one might at first think the two are merely pulling the same tricks again - yet the effect here is very different.

Where The Lobster took place in a kind of parallel universe - one in which single people are turned into animals if they cannot successfully find a mate - the world of The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a kind of hyperreal, uncanny valley version of our own. The result is as alienating as it sounds.

With the strange dialogue, possibly supernatural premise and perverse black humour, The Killing of a Sacred Deer may seem like pretty inscrutable stuff - but, as a sum of its parts, it does make sense. A loose retelling of the Greek myth of Agamemnon and Iphigenia, here justice and retribution are not so much voluntary as they are divine - the gradual disintegration of Steven’s life not a result of a choice either he or Martin have actually made but simply something that is occurring because the time has come.

As such, the idea of passivity comes up again and again - from the strange way Anna and Steven conduct their sex life to a disturbing monologue given by Steven’s daughter Kim, in which she equates physical paralysis with a kind of peace - and we come to see just how fragile the family’s ideals of logic and reason really are.

If you think this all sounds a bit artsy, then you thought right. This is an art film, but like the Oscar nominated The Lobster - which also featured an A-list cast - The Killing of a Sacred Deer takes things to a more provocative place in a way that even the wankiest cinema rarely dares.

In fact, for the festival-going crowd, it's almost like a trick: a honeypot set for more gentile cinema goers who of course are going to go along to a Colin Farrell/Nicole Kidman double-bill (especially considering what a hit their other NZIFF collab The Beguiled is likely to have been with the typical film festival crowd).

Judging by the sheer, abject discomfort of the Civic audience with whom I saw it - one man, a few rows back from me, laughed loudly and continuously at some of the most harrowing scenes; and in seats along my row I noticed people covering their eyes - more than a few will be caught, unwittingly, in the trap Lanthimos has set.

Whether that kind of thing is your bag or not - and if it's not then this isn’t the film for you - it's still an extraordinary experience. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a horror movie, a monster movie, but most of all a genuine and upsetting cinematic transgression as perverse and enchanting as the myth from which it takes its title.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is currently screening as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.