Written for RAF News November 2017
Steven Murphy is a successful heart surgeon, admired by his peers and loved by his family, but all that is about come apart when demons from the past come back to haunt him. Not literally, well who knows.
Murphy has been meeting a young boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan) to give occasional gifts and fatherly advice but his wife and kids are unaware of this relationship. Murphy feels indebted to Martin for some reason, things getting substantially more serious when it seems a hex has been placed on his family that will end in a lot of people dying if nothing is done about it.
It sounds absurd but stranger things have happened in Yorgos Lanthimos’ films – like turning people into animals in The Lobster. The style is unmistakable, the flat matter-of-fact dialogue and delivery that can find humour in the darkest ideas. It has a wonky realism that makes you think the hex could be real and so the stakes are as high as they can be. Murphy has to confront superstition and contemplate an unthinkable sacrifice*.
Colin Farrell, having starred in strange success The Lobster, looks at home with this mechanical direction, and Nicole Kidman dovetails in with a bit more soul as wife Anna but is enough Stepford Wife to keep things off kilter, especially in the bedroom. The young actors are excellent, making the blunt and sometimes bizarre dialogue sound natural.
Once again Lanthimos has created a beautifully strange piece of work that is uniquely his own. It is a horror revenge film that has a tone that flits between tragic and slapstick. It uses real drama but in such a false way that it’s hard to connect to anyone, but this feels beside the point. What is clear is that it knows how to challenge expectations, create suspense and get a laugh – even if it is a nervous one.
SPOILER in the shape of some unformed speculative analysis…
*Where Dogtooth twisted and amplified family values and The Lobster made official the rules that govern both relationships and singledom, it seems Sacred Deer – as suggested by it’s name, is a surreal slanted look at religion, superstition and science.
The camera often tilts up, as though focusing on an invisible force that is guiding the action, or is believed to perhaps. This empty space is even the focus of the poster.
A doctor, the symbol of scientific and rational thought, is shown to have flaws in the form of alcoholism and egotism: refusing to acknowledge that a surgeon can kill a patient (but an anaesthesiologist can). Clearly he feels guilt for his past but his denial will only grow stronger when confronted with it, and his refusal to acknowledge this will bring him to the point of superstitious sacrifice, to rid him of his sin.
Lanthimos will often have ideology at the heart of his films, and the emotionless style of acting, though it may simply be a comic affectation, plays off of and is challenged by these ideas. Such an incredible and interesting filmmaker.