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D: Yorgos Lanthimos / 121m

Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Alicia Silverstone, Bill Camp

In Yorgos Lanthimos’s follow up to the multi-award winning The Lobster (2015), he teams up again with Colin Farrell to tell a story adapted from Iphigenia at Aulis by the Greek playwright Euripides. Lanthimos is an idiosyncratic writer/director, and his approach to movie making can often seem experimental and/or challenging. That’s certainly the case here, as he shines a light on the aftermath of a man dying during surgery, a man that Farrell’s character, cardiothoracic specialist Steven Moore, operated on. Steven is part of a traditional nuclear family – wife Anna (Kidman), teenage daughter Kim (Cassidy), younger son Bob (Suljic) – is well respected by his peers, and appears to have everything he could need. The only odd thing about his life is his relationship with a teenage boy called Martin (Keoghan). They meet in coffee shops, and though Martin at first seems as if he could be some kind of outpatient that Steven is treating, his openly expressed neediness is at odds with Steven’s more reserved demeanour.

Martin begins to visit the hospital instead of waiting for their meetings outside. He appears without warning, and his beahviour becomes increasingly erratic. In an effort to placate him, Steven invites Martin to his home for dinner. Over time, Martin ingratiates himself into Steven’s family, and wins the affection of Kim. A reciprocal arrangement sees Steven going to dinner at Martin’s home, where he meets Martin’s mother (Silverstone). The evening doesn’t go well, and it prompts Steven to start ignoring Martin’s calls and attempts to meet up. Then one day Bob wakes to find he’s paralysed from the waist down. Soon he’s refusing to eat as well, but despite the best medical treatment that Steven can arrange, there is no physical reason found to explain what’s happening. And then, during choir practice, Kim too loses the use of her legs, and she and her brother find themselves in hospital, in the same room, and facing the same outcome: death.

In adapting Iphigenia at Aulis, Lanthimos has taken the central theme – what would you do if you had to kill a loved one to avert a greater number of deaths – and made it into a psychological thriller that proves difficult to engage with from the very start. Beginning with a close up of a beating human heart that’s been operated on, this is as close as the movie gets to displaying anything like the same kind of “heart” to its characters. As a result, Steven, Anna, Martin et al become chess pieces to be moved around a board of Lanthimos’ design, and with no greater ambition than to reach the endgame. What doesn’t help is the emotional constraint the movie adopts, particularly with Steven, where his dialogue is largely clipped and/or neutral in its relation to other dialogue in any given scene. This makes Steven something of an emotional cipher, physically present in the moment, but otherwise withdrawn or remote from the people around him (he’s more present with his children but then only when they’re doing what he expects of them). And even when he does display any real emotion, such as during a row with Anna, his responses are childish and inappropriate; he’s a man approximating what it is to feel anything.

Steven is also a dissembler, hiding the facts about his relationship with Martin from everyone else until matters dictate he reveal the truth. This should lead to a point from which the audience can begin to have some sympathy for his predicament – in order to save the lives of everyone in his family he must choose to kill one of them deliberately, to make a sacrificial offering as atonement for his sins – but thanks to Lanthimos’ determination to continue on and make Steven’s predicament a tragic one, the movie becomes instead a visual treat if not one that is likely to stir any feelings beyond impatience or apathy. The how and the why of his children falling ill is explained fully and with no room for misunderstanding, but despite this the actual source of their illness remains illogically set up and maintained. As an act of revenge it has its merits (as Euripides knew), but it’s introduced in a way that robs it of any merit as a narrative device; the audience is expected to go along with it because the script doesn’t offer any alternative. It also leaves the inter-relationships between the likes of Martin and Kim, and Steven and Anna – and most notably, Anna and Matthew (Camp), one of Steven’s colleagues – feeling contrived and under-developed.

There are times when it seems as if Lanthimos is more interested in mood and tone than he is in characterisation or narrative meaning, but what this does mean is that the movie has such a strong, consistent visual aesthetic that it compensates for some of the more wayward decisions made in regard to the plot. Each shot is lovingly framed and lit by DoP Thimios Bakatakis, and there are moments of quiet beauty, such as the very high, overhead shot of Anna and Bob that sees them about to leave the hospital after Bob has been allowed to go home, only for him to collapse. The camera stays fixed in place, maintaining its distance, as Anna desperately tries to rouse him. There are other moments where the cinematography excels, but these moments aren’t always in service to the narrative, unless Lanthimos’ intention really is to keep the viewer at a distance, and make it more difficult (than it is already) to engage with the characters.

In the end, and despite Lanthimos’ best efforts, this is a movie that relies on its main character behaving inappropriately and oddly in spite of the gravity of his situation, and Keoghan giving the kind of performance that is technically impressive – and that’s about all. As the movie spirals down towards a scene that is likely to have viewers laughing when they should be horrified, the nature of the material reveals itself to be a carefully constructed farce rather than the psychological mystery thriller that it appears to be (though whether or not this is Lanthimos’ intention is still debatable). Watched as such, the movie makes more sense and is more enjoyable, but if taken at face value it’s more likely to alienate viewers than entice them in with the offer of a probing, insightful melodrama. More simply put, and despite a handful of good performances, it’s a movie that looks very good indeed on the surface, but which lacks the necessary substance when you look more closely.

Rating: 6/10 – an arthouse thriller that takes a step back from its central plot before it’s even begun, The Killing of a Sacred Deer strives for eloquence and meaning, but falls short because of its detachment from the material; Farrell et al are left stranded sometimes by Lanthimos’ approach to the movie’s subject matter, and there are too many occasions where the viewer’s response will be one of bemusement or disbelief at what they’re seeing.