The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
Absurdism is an art-house genre that messes with our brains by turning logic on its head. The filmmaker scatters a few clues throughout the film and leaves the audience to make whatever sense of it they can. A superb example is The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), a film full of conflicting clues that will make many viewers wonder if they are watching a supernatural horror, a psychological thriller, or a black comedy.
The bare bones of the story are easy to describe but their meaning less so. Successful heart surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) saves many lives but one day he operates after a couple of drinks and the patient dies. With life and death in his hands, an occasional failure is normal. Some years later Steven spends time with his daughter’s friend, the loner Martin (Barry Keoghan) who says he wants to be a cardiologist. Martin ingratiates himself into Steven’s family and begins a relationship with the surgeon’s daughter. When Steven tries to stop all contact, Martin reveals that Steven killed his father so Steven must kill one of his own family or all of them will die. Inexplicable symptoms appear in his son and daughter which force Steven to make a horrific decision.
The narrative is weird enough but its presentation gives the film an extraordinary atmosphere of horror. The word Sacred in the film’s title is the first clue that this story occupies a space beyond logical realism, somewhere in the eye-for-an-eye cosmos where a wrong must be held to account. Absurdism frees the filmmaker from conventional logic to make the audience question their taken-for-granted world: like, why should a surgeon not atone for a tragic mistake? The filming style accentuates the outer-worldliness of what we see: subjects are framed to look small against massive walls; panoptic shots render humans as trivial objects from a universal gaze, while some tracking shots feel like the camera is running along the ceiling looking down on human panic.
While the camera creates the visuals, the performances portray humans being under the control of an unknowable force. Outwardly refined and successful, the Murphys are strange people. Steven and wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) deliver deadpan dialogue and wooden body language, and their sex life relies on one of them imitating a comatose patient. As bizarre symptoms appear in their children and medical tests fail to find a cause, Steven turns on Martin like an animal caught in a trap. When science cannot help, he knows that a higher force is in control. There is no logic in what is happening and no causal link can be found. Brilliant photography and powerful acting combine to continually raise the psychological tension to a bizarre finale.
Absurdism often depicts a form of moral dystopia; it is also the code for understanding Sacred Deer. Some will see Martin as an evil force; others will see this as a psychotic episode or maybe it’s just natural justice being served. But the film remains in the moment: never questioning why things are happening, always mired in its own experiential strangeness. More than anything else, it is this lingering quality that makes it an engaging and memorable film.
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Stars: Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan, Nicole Kidman