WIUM Tristates Public Radio

'Killing of a Sacred Deer' Is A Twisted Indictment Of White Male Privilege

Oct 20, 2017
Originally published on October 23, 2017 1:36 pm
Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In the 2016 film "The Lobster," Colin Farrell played a recent divorcee forced to find a new mate or be transformed into an animal. It was the first English language feature written and directed by the Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, who's now re-teamed with Farrell on a new movie called "The Killing Of A Sacred Deer." Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Yorgos Lanthimos specializes in unnervingly strange horror movies set in a world that looks a lot like our own but sounds nothing like it. His characters speak in flat, stilted rhythms and their dialogue teems with non-sequiturs that are almost otherworldly in their banality. In the director's new film, "The Killing Of A Sacred Deer," one of the recurring topics of discussion is a wristwatch and the specific benefits of a metal strap versus a leather one. Are the characters speaking in code? Is the wristwatch strap meant to signify something, like the inescapable grip of time?

Even after two viewings, I have no idea. What Lanthimos seems to be getting at is the emptiness of small talk, the way it tends to cover up the messiness of real human feeling. Everyone in this movie is unfailingly polite, none more so than Dr. Steven Murphy, an American heart surgeon. He's played by Colin Farrell with a thick, gray beard and some of the same hangdog expressiveness he brought to "The Lobster," his previous collaboration with Lanthimos. Steven has a wife named Anna, played by Nicole Kidman, and two bright, well-behaved adolescent children.

He also has a strange relationship with a teenage boy named Martin, played by Barry Keoghan, who sometimes visits Steven at the hospital where he works. One night, Steven invites Martin over to have dinner with his family. The next night, Martin returns the favor by having Steven over for dinner with him and his mother, played by Alicia Silverstone in a memorable one-scene performance. Soon, Martin's demands on the surgeon's time become ever more insistent, his random hospital visits increasingly unwelcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER")

BARRY KEOGHAN: (As Martin) Me and my mom thought it'd be nice if you came by for dinner tonight. We could watch the rest of the movie. Does eight sound good for you?

COLIN FARRELL: (As Steven Murphy) That's very kind of you, but I just can't make it tonight. I need to be at home.

KEOGHAN: (As Martin) Can't you get away for a couple of hours?

FARRELL: (As Steven Murphy) I can't, no - some other time.

KEOGHAN: (As Martin) My mom's going to be upset. Can I tell you a secret? Don't tell her I told you. I think she likes you. I mean, she's attracted to you. But she says that's not true. But it is, I'm sure. And to be honest, I think you're perfect for each other. You'd make a great couple.

CHANG: Keoghan, an Irish newcomer who played the youngest character in the film "Dunkirk," gives a superbly creepy and insinuating performance here as a figure of mysterious yet unambiguous menace. There's a reason Martin is trying to play matchmaker, and it has something to do with his father, who we eventually learn was once a patient of Steven's. Before long, the Murphys' 14-year-old daughter Kim, played by Raffey Cassidy, has developed a crush on Martin. Around the same time, their 12-year-old son Bob, played by Sunny Suljic, is suddenly immobilized by a strange illness that baffles Steven and his colleagues.

I'm reluctant to say much more about the plot, which is at once deeply twisted and shockingly straightforward. Suffice to say that the movie's title is a direct reference to the Greek myth of Agamemnon, who killed a sacred deer from Artemis' grove and was ordered to sacrifice his own daughter as punishment. Lanthimos is, of course, Greek himself. And it's only fitting that his movie should feel like a behavioral experiment devised by unfathomably cruel gods. Scripted by Lanthimos and his regular writing partner Efthymis Filippou, "The Killing Of A Sacred Deer" is, like all their previous collaborations, an immaculate piece of craftsmanship. With its long, graceful tracking shots down hospital corridors and a soundtrack teeming with shuttering violins, the movie boldly mimics the syntax of Stanley Kubrick's 1980 classic "The Shining."

The atmosphere tingles with menace, and the threat of ghastly violence seems to lurk behind every impeccably lighted corner. It's easy to feel a sense of awe at the perfectionism of Lanthimos' visual and sonic design, even if the movie feels like an increasingly tedious and empty provocation. "The Lobster" was far from uplifting, but its satire had a rich vein of melancholy, as well as an abundance of playful ideas. "The Killing Of A Sacred Deer" has at least one idea of its own.

It's a savage indictment of upper-class white male privilege and the moral cowardice that it can breed. But that thesis is stretched awfully thin as the story marches slowly toward its bloodcurdling end. Lanthimos keeps striking the same harsh, dissonant chord for two hours in a movie that ultimately feels closer to monotony than myth.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic at The Los Angeles Times. On Monday's show, the life and death of Eric Garner. Matt Taibbi has a new book about the man who died in 2014 at the hands of police.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATT TAIBBI: He's on the ground, he has people on top of him, he has an arm around his neck and he's saying, 11 times, I can't breathe. And that's how he dies.

DAVIES: The cell phone video of his death went viral. Taibbi is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone. He examines Garner's life, the police practices that led to his death and the legal proceedings that followed. Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MULATU ASTATKE'S "CHIFARA; MONO MASTER")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.