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'The Killing of the Scared Deer' delivers dark and paranoid delights but may be too challenging for some viewers

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Director/co-writer Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) helms this story about surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) and his family who are menaced by a young man named Martin (Barry Keoghan). (119 min.)

BALANCING THE SCALES Martin (Barry Keoghan) insinuates himself into the life of a surgeon he holds responsible for the death of his father. - PHOTO COURTESY OF A24
  • Photo Courtesy Of A24
  • BALANCING THE SCALES Martin (Barry Keoghan) insinuates himself into the life of a surgeon he holds responsible for the death of his father.

Glen If Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, Roman Polanski, and Michael Haneke had a baby and he grew up reading Greek mythology and watching '70s paranoia thrillers, he might make a film like this. If I had to offer some recent touchstones, I'd say It Comes at Night (2017), Get Out (2017), and The Witch (2015) tap into a similar horror vein. It's not about cheap scares or gore but instead a creeping dread that slowly envelops and consumes. Steven is a respected and successful surgeon with a beautiful ophthalmologist wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), and two respectful children, 12-year-old Bob (Sunny Suljic) and 14-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy). Unbeknownst to his family, he's been mentoring Martin, a fatherless young man who's harboring a secret grudge against Steven. As Martin is brought into Steven's family, Martin's ill will is revealed as Bob becomes paralyzed in what doctors believe is a psychosomatic episode. Soon Steven must confront his forgotten transgression against Martin. Dark, enigmatic, and unsettling—this is a film for viewers who want more than standard Hollywood fare.

Anna The characters are in a fractured reality; oddly formal and overly open, the dialogue is somewhat unnatural and strange. Why Steven has decided to mentor Martin is unknown, and even more puzzling is why he's keeping it a secret. It isn't only his family life he's guarding. When Martin shows up at the hospital where he works, Steven is shaken and feels he needs to explain Martin away as a hopeful surgeon-to-be. When Martin's true evil reveals itself, the force at work is unknown, but just as he says, Steven's family starts falling ill one by one. Bleak, moody, and unrelenting, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is sure to be loved by some and hated by others. It certainly isn't going to answer all your questions of why or how, instead leaving an unsatisfied pile of questions in the pit of your stomach. Some people hate that feeling, and if the films Glen mentioned didn't strike your fancy, it's doubtful this one will. I personally like feeling a bit unsettled because of a film. To evoke that takes skill, and Lanthimos has a knack for it. I was surprised this movie found its way to the Downtown Centre. It has a very art house feel more suited to the Palm Theatre crowd.

Glen The dialog and behavior of the characters is decidedly queer and stilted. Steven thinks announcing that his daughter Kim started her first menstruation passes as dinner conversation. When Steven accepts a dinner invitation to Martin's house, Martin's mother (Alicia Silverstone) comes on to Steven by telling him he has beautiful hands and then begins sucking on his fingers uninvited. It's a cold, uncomfortable film, a revenge tale, and a morality play. It opens with a graphic shot of a beating human heart exposed for surgery by a stainless steel chest spreader. Director Lanthimos seems to be challenging his audience, daring them to look at something meant to be covered and protected or at least hidden from view. He follows that with a shot of Steven and his anesthesiologist Matthew (Bill Camp) walking down the hospital hallway post-surgery, having a banal conversation about expensive watches. These kinds of juxtapositions set the film's odd tone and prepare the viewer to believe that Martin has some kind of mysterious power to manifest death in Steven's family. The film ultimately finds a way to resolve itself in a way that will leave viewers disturbed. It's a strange film, and it works in large part because of Irish actor Keoghan, who was so great in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, where he played George, who's injured after volunteering to go with Mr. Dawson on his pleasure boat to pick up stranded soldiers. Here Keoghan plays Martin as an agent of righteousness. He takes no pleasure in hurting Steven and his family, but says, "It's the only way I can think of that is close to justice." How Martin demands a balance of justice's scales is a paranoid nightmare.

IMPOSSIBLE CHOICES Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell, right) and his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), find their family being torn apart by a transgression from Steven's past. - PHOTO COURTESY OF A24
  • Photo Courtesy Of A24
  • IMPOSSIBLE CHOICES Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell, right) and his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), find their family being torn apart by a transgression from Steven's past.

Anna We find out Steven has battled his own demons as well; drinking was enough of a problem that he had to quit three years prior. He also sees himself as somewhat infallible. The general God complex associated with surgeons is evident when he tells Anna that while anesthesiologists can make mistakes, surgeons can't—a wholly ridiculous concept, but one Steven has convinced himself of. As their mysterious illnesses progress, the children start a desperate attempt to win Steven's affection and avoid the fate Martin has devised for them. Anna is doing what she can to find out both the secrets Steven is keeping and the solution to her and her children's apparent fate. Kidman is calm and calculating in the role, but I have to agree that the real star is Keoghan—he's subtle and seemingly without menace, but creepy nonetheless. He appears to want Steven as a substitute father, and when Steven refuses his mother's odd advances, Martin puts into play his eye-for-an-eye plan of justice. While I have no doubt The Killing of a Sacred Deer isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, if you dig an enigmatic and thought-provoking film, this one will leave you with that unsettled but satisfying feeling, with more questions than answers and plenty to talk about with fellow moviegoers. Δ

Split Screen is written by Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and his wife, Anna. Comment at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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