Culture

The deadly comedy of ‘Sacred Deer’

BEIRUT: There are times amusement seems appropriate, other times less so. In most circumstances, it would be inappropriate to laugh when a young woman cries out, “Dad! Bob’s dying!”

Here the teenage Kim utters it, relatively late in the story, in reference to her younger brother. It’s not conventional comic material.

Yet a number of people who’ve watched “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” the 2017 feature by Yorgos Lanthimos, have been heard to chuckle at Kim’s remark.

It’s partly the writing. How does Kim know Bob’s “dying?” It’s also a matter of delivery (direction then, and acting). Kim’s alarm ought to sound like a wail for help. Here, it’s mingled with traces of relief, even satisfaction. In the silence following “Dad! Bob’s dying!” as her eyes gaze down upon Bob’s features, you can all but hear Kim mutter, “not me.”

How the characters (and audience) reach this unlikely comic moment has everything to do with what’s come before, in the stiff, formalized, pretence-laden world Lanthimos and co-writer Efthimis Filippou have created – or flensed away – for us.

“Flensing” seems appropriate. The opening frame of the film – preceded by a few bars of a lushly orchestrated piece of choral music – is that of someone’s beating heart laid bare, literally, on the operating table.

Cincinnati, Ohio, is the unnamed location of the film.

The year is now-ish. Steven and Anna (Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman) are a respectable couple with a couple of kids – Kim and Bob.

Steven’s a respected cardiologist who smokes like a chimney. Anna’s a respected ophthalmologist who likes to take a cigarette while watering the roses.

As surgeon Steven and his anaesthesiologist Matthew stride out of the operating theater at the start of the film, they discuss timepieces.

“Nice watch,” Matthew says. “What’s the maximum depth it can take?” Steven replies and asks about the maximum depth of Matthew’s divers watch, explaining he’s bored of his watch and is thinking about an upgrade. Matthew says he knows the watch merchant and promises to negotiate a deal for him.

“I think I’d prefer a metal strap though,” Steven replies.

Afterward, Steven sits in a working-class diner with a 16-year-old boy. It’s an odd dynamic between the two. Martin (Barry Keoghan) apologizes for being late and all subsequent remarks are carefully respectful. When he finishes eating, Steven presents him with a new watch, a copy of his anaesthesiologist’s, but with a metal strap.

“Does it come off?” Martin wonders. “I want a leather strap.”

There’s no relief from the tension surrounding Steven when he returns to his suburban home to eat supper with his family.

His conversation with his family sounds like it’s emulating an American B-movie from the 1950s.

Later, as Anna’s coming to bed, Steven says he’d like some more light. She obliges, removes her dressing gown and asks, “General anaesthetic?” Steven agrees with her prognosis, so she deploys herself on the foot of the bed, faceup, as though unconscious.

Steven puts down his reading material. He blinks, gets himself started and climbs on.

The next day, Martin disregards Steven’s explicit instructions and turns up at the hospital for an unscheduled visit.

There he finds the surgeon chatting with his anaesthesiologist.

“Hey,” Martin says to Matthew. “We’ve got the same watch!”

In the early movements of their film, Lanthimos and Filippou do a fine job suggesting a plausible narrative for the nature of Steven and Martin’s relationship.

It’s a master class in cinematic misdirection. The story at the core of “Sacred Deer” is more macabre – and defiant of rational explanation – than mundane pederasty.

“Sacred Deer” is less fantastical than the dystopia Lanthimos and Filippou imagined for their award-winning 2015 effort, “The Lobster.” The mannered weirdness of the new film at times resembles Luis Bunuel’s 1972 farce “The Discreet Charms of the Bourgeoisie” and less-playful seductive-vagrant films, like Alex Van Warmerdam’s 2013 “Borgman.” Its fearless embrace of abrupt, graphic violence is reminiscent of some work by Michael Haneke.

Unhinged as the narrative is, “Sacred Deer” can be difficult to watch at times, but there’s plenty for film lovers to appreciate.

The most obvious strength is the photography of Thimios Bakatakis, who shot “The Lobster,” Eskil Vogt’s “Blind” and Athina Rachel Tsangari’s “Attendberg.” Bakatakis is a bit of a magician, framing clinical, alienating shots that somehow glisten with humanity.

The film’s disorienting story and deadpan dialogue also benefit from effective acting. Farrell and Kidman are fine but the youngsters steal the show. Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic (Kim and Bob) do a fine job enacting petty sibling rivalry in the life-or-death story Martin’s devised.

Manipulative, deceitful, self-righteously, calmly vengeful, Keoghan’s Martin is a well dislikeable character, one whose humanity emerges from Steven’s desperate efforts to pre-empt the punishment the boy’s decided the surgeon must choose for his family.

Lanthimos and Filippou’s film speaks most coherently to those with an ear for incongruity – the grim comedy of the violence a father’s love compels him to perform on his son, say, or the fairy tales of accountability some doctors rehearse.

“A surgeon never kills a patient,” Steven informs Anna, while explaining how he got his family into this mess. “An anaesthesiologist can kill a patient, but a surgeon never can.”

Sometime later, while Anna is searching for her own way out of Martin’s endgame, she asks Matthew, the surgeon’s anaesthesiologist, what he recalls of a particular day in the operating theater.

“An anaesthesiologist never kills a patient,” he explains earnestly. “A surgeon can kill a patient, but an anaesthesiologist never can.”

“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” screens at Metropolis-Sofil on Oct. 11 at 9.30 p.m. BIFF winds down Oct. 12. For information about scheduling, cancellations and the like, see www.beirutfilmfestival.org.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 11, 2017, on page 16.

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