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Film review: 'The Killing of a Sacred Deer'


Director Yorgos Lanthimos specializes in dark and demented tales that delight in dismantling the rules and norms serving as the basis for civilized society. His previous work and one of last year's best films, "The Lobster," upended and satirized the idea of romantic relationships. That story had Lanthimos' trademark bleak outlook, but was balanced with a droll, ever-present sense of humor; in "The Killing of a Scared Deer" the filmmaker severs that tether completely and plunges us even further into the darkness.

The film stars Colin Farrell as Steven, a successful and respected surgeon with a wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), and two children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). Hanging around the periphery of Steven's life, we meet Martin (Barry Keoghan in a fantastic performance). The surgeon has been mentoring and offering his friendship to the boy, whose own father died in a car accident. Steven spends significant time with Martin, taking him under his wing, and he gradually ingratiates himself into the lives of Steven's family.

It's well into the movie before we learn Martin's true motivations, explained in an unnerving monologue that suddenly spills out during one of their diner meetings. It quickly becomes clear that Martin's sweetly awkward demeanor covers something much more dangerous.

The film's title and inspiration come from the Greek myth of Iphigenia -- King Agamemnon offends the goddess Artemis by accidentally killing a deer in a grove that's sacred to her, and he must make a terrible sacrifice to avoid incurring her further wrath. As Martin sets about turning Steven's life into a waking nightmare, the film grows into a chilling examination of power and the dangers of any person playing God. But it's a morality tale without any one clear moral to tell.

Lanthimos presents his vision of a world built on chaos and absurdity, and from the first shot -- an exposed, beating heart -- the film is designed to put its audience on edge. It reminds us at every moment how fragile our bodies and our existences truly are. Like "The Lobster," the story has its moments of humor, though far less of them, and they do nothing to detract from the feeling of mounting dread. The icy tone fits nicely alongside the works of Stanley Kubrick, Lars von Trier, or Michael Haneke -- Lanthimos enjoys watching his characters squirm, and his films have a similar ability to burrow under your skin.

"The Killing of a Scared Deer" isn't a horror film strictly speaking, though it's often horrifying. The visceral reaction it inspires requires a sturdy constitution to endure; the sheer anxiety I felt watching this movie can't be understated. It's an uncomfortable, occasionally agonizing experience, and as such, it's a film I feel comfortable recommending only to a slim number of people. But it's one that hasn't stopped rattling around my brain since the moment it ended.