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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Film review: The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a dark art-house success

Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster follow up shows the director is more than a one-trick crustacean

Barry Keoghan’s character torments Colin Farrell’s Dr Murphy in ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’. Courtesy Diff
Barry Keoghan’s character torments Colin Farrell’s Dr Murphy in ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’. Courtesy Diff

The current golden child of the art-house cinema world is back on our screens, following 2015’s delightfully surreal, and unexpectedly commercially successful, The Lobster. From the very beginning, however, Yorgos Lanthimos makes it clear that, despite his new high profile, he won’t be making any steps towards the mainstream just yet. The Killing of a Sacred Deer opens with a close-up of live open-heart surgery, immediately both provocative and attention-grabbing, and it carries on in the same vein for the next two hours.

Colin Farrell’s Dr Murphy is a rich, successful heart surgeon, and he seems to have it all – a beautiful wife (Nicole Kidman’s Anne), a big, gorgeous house and two sweet children. There is something a little strange about Murphy – the emotionless monotone in which he discusses everything from the relative merits of leather and metal watch straps to life and death is a little disconcerting, but initially we put this down to the fact that he is a little socially awkward.

As the film moves on and the Pinteresque banality persists, the disquiet grows and is emphasised by distant, disconnected camera work that never lets us feel too close to the characters, as well as an unsettling soundtrack of discordant, classically influenced music-meets-noise.

Murphy also has a strange relationship with Martin, a teenage boy whom he showers with gifts and meets regularly for lunch at their favourite diner. Initially, it appears there may be some kind of weird sugar-daddy relationship going on, but we soon learn that Martin is the son of a patient who died under Murphy’s scalpel.

Gradually, Martin ingratiates himself with Murphy’s family, then drops the bomb. Despite his extreme politeness and deadpan delivery, Martin is a vengeful soul, and to make amends for his crime, Murphy must kill one of his own family. His wife and kids will fall ill: “Stage one is paralysis, stage two refusing all food, stage three bleeding from the eyes, then they die,” he informs Murphy without a hint of malice or feeling. If Murphy doesn’t choose one to sacrifice, then all three will die from the illness.

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Thus unravels an engrossing moral dilemma, made all the more fascinating by the amoral way in which every character approaches it. Life goes on largely as normal, save for the inconvenience of the paralysis, while the family engage in a bizarre balloon debate behind each other’s backs to convince Murphy of their worth.

At once a horror, a comedy, a thriller and a family drama, it will have you transfixed from beginning to end.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer screens on December 11 at 6pm at the Madinat Theatre, then goes on general release in cinemas from Thursday