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Film review: ‘Sacred Deer,’ an eccentric folktale about cosmic balance

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Preston Barta

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Rated R, 121 minutes.

Opens Friday at Angelika Film Center in Dallas and Alamo Drafthouse in Richardson.

 4 of 5 stars

As we’ve seen this year, with polarizing titles like A24’s It Comes at Night and more recently with Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, we’re in an interesting time with studios betting on bold filmmakers and their artistic visions. And whether these movies are so good they align with our taste buds or so appalling they have us waving the white flag, it’s astonishing to see where we’re heading.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest trip down the rabbit hole, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, very much falls into this bracket of filmmaking. It’s a divisive movie that exists in its own vacuum and doesn’t give a damn if you like it or not. It puts your limitations to the ultimate test, especially if you are a parent, but it also does so to the point of admiration.

From a mind akin to Stanley Kubrick, Lanthimos’ paralyzing film follows a Cincinnati surgeon with some skeletons in his closet. When our protagonist, Steven (Colin Farrell), unexpectedly reconnects with the teenage son (Barry Keoghan) of a man he once lost on the operating table, some sinister events of biblical proportions happen. No one in Steven’s family (Nicole Kidman, Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic) is safe, and it drives the doctor toward the unthinkable.

Like any serious drama, Sacred Deer takes its time wrapping you around its crooked finger, and you feel that through its deeply disturbing atmosphere that emerges off the screen. But as strange of an experience as the film is, it eases you into its oddity through outrageous bursts of humor, something lesser filmmakers fail to accomplish with works that are hard to sink our teeth into.

Just to give you a taste of how unorthodox this film is, look no further than Keoghan’s teenage character, Martin. Keoghan wears the skin of Martin like it’s his own, fitting seamlessly even into the eerie, deadpan way of talking that Lanthimos evokes.

“Being a part of this movie and delivering our lines in a matter-of-fact tone was a refreshing experience,” Keoghan said. “I wouldn’t necessarily like for every movie experience to be like this, but saying Lanthimos’ dialogue in this certain tone with no emotion attached was wild. The film was dark enough already without having to attach emotion to it. This just felt like you were on another planet.”

Like Lanthimos’ previous work, such as last year’s The Lobster (also starring Farrell), the most impressive elements of Sacred Deer is the subtext and how it manages to reflect how strange our social pressures are. So much of this film revolves around the theme of balance. For every good thing, there has to be a bad one. If one person is one way, the other is their opposite.

“The best thing about a movie like this is how people can go away hating it or adoring it. I want to work on these kinds of films where you don’t always walk away satisfied. Instead, you leave challenged and pulling at the thread of the film’s obscurity. Everyone has a different interpretation of it, whether it’s mythological or weird for the sake of being weird. It gets under your skin.”

The Killing of a Sacred Deer doesn’t just get under your skin; it lives there. It attaches itself like a leech, forcing you to face feelings you may not want to, haven’t before or some you may not have thought you could feel. This is why Lanthimos is a master filmmaker: He knows how to cook your nerves on high heat and leave your mouth agape.

So prepare to laugh when you feel that it is not appropriate, shriek when it pushes your buttons and exit with a different perspective about your surroundings.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work on Follow him on Twitter @PrestonBarta.