‘Sacred Deer’ a step down, but still Yorgos

Images courtesy A24.

8/10 The Killing of a Sacred Deer is one of those mysteries that’s coy about major plot elements, so consider this entire review marked for mild spoilers

***

Martin (Barry Keoghan), high school student aspiring to become a medical professional, has struck up a mentor relationship with skilled heart surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell). Though Martin’s father is initially stated to have died instantly in a car accident 10 years earlier, it’s later revealed that he made it to the hospital and died on Murphy’s operating table. As revenge, Martin tells Murphy that his wife and children will first be paralyzed from the waist down, then refuse to eat, then hemorrhage from the eyes and then finally die. Martin tells him the only way to break this curse is to choose and kill one of his afflicted family members and destroy his own family the way he destroyed Martin’s.

The pieces of Killing of a Sacred Deer don’t quite fit together. It’s marketed and plays out as a mystery and psychological horror film, but its plot elements don’t coordinate to support those ideas.

The big way this comes up is the unresolved mystery elements. Murphy spends much of the movie trying to figure out how Martin is making his family sick, but never does. Word of God is that Martin is a warlock or a Greek god or something and has cursed them, which makes complete sense, but isn’t expressed well enough in the film.

In what is functionally the film’s second plotline, Murphy’s wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) investigates Martin’s father’s death, suspecting her three-years sober husband deserves what’s come to him, but this is also unresolved. Steven Murphy says he was sober and that a death on the operating table is always the anesthesiologist’s fault. Later, Matthew the anesthesiologist (Bill Camp) says Murphy was drunk and that the surgeon is always accountable for the patient’s death — Murphy’s saying he didn’t do anything illegal and Matthew is only giving this information in exchange for a sexual favor, so neither of these accounts are reliable.

Neither of these plot lines, which the movie spends most of its time on, are resolved. The protagonists’ fruitless, scattered efforts fizzle out and Murphy is forced has to deal with Martin on his own terms. While the main body of The Killing of a Sacred Deer and its climactic moments are strong enough, one doesn’t build toward the other, leaving the film as a whole much weaker than it would have been if writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos had found a better transition.

The best I could argue in The Killing of a Sacred Deer’s defense is that the repeated left turns as Murphy switches tactics and the intentional lack of a satisfying ending are to give a greater sense of his increasing desperation and to extend the film’s aura of vague discomfort past the end credits by not giving the audience any traditional release, and this is the film’s strong point.

It’s strangely hard to tell at first viewing, but the photography for The Killing of a Sacred Deer is stunningly surreal.

While its plot feels lacking, the film is heavily atmospheric and obsessed with pubic hair and introductory sexual experiences. The subject matter and slow, dark camerawork combine to create an experience that’s lastingly creepy, if not quite coherent.

The secret to understanding the film may come from its strange title, which refers to a family of Greek myths about the buildup to the Trojan War in which King Agamemnon incurs the wrath of Artemis and commanded to sacrifice his  daughter, Iphigenia. In some tellings, Artemis is upset at the blood about to be shed in Troy, but in others, Agamemnon accidentally kills a sacred deer and Artemis, like Martin, demands a blood repayment. The story’s conclusion branches further — Iphigenia is sometimes sacrificed and sometimes spared by Artemis at the last moment, and sometimes Artemis accepts a sacred deer in her place. Lanthimos was obviously inspired by the myth, though which version got to him isn’t really clear.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is Lanthimos’ second English-language effort after The Lobster, which I adored, earned a surprise Oscar nomination for its screenplay last year. His penchants for stilted dialogue delivery, humiliating and mutilating his characters, lingering shots of upsetting imagery and scripts obsessed with rules and rulebreaking have instantly set him apart and conjured excitement for his career going forward. With Sacred Deer he continues to film to the beat of his own drum, and that can only be a good thing.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions and suggestions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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