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film review

Colin Farrell’s performance sets the tone for the film The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but at times he is distracting. Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman takes a more subtle approach to the portentous and pedestrian things she has to say.

At one point in the latest provocation from Greek satirist Yorgos Lanthimos, a teenage girl lying in a hospital bed curses out her mother under her breath. It is a moment of intense naturalism; a line that rings true to life. And yet if all the dialogue in this script that Lanthimos co-wrote with his regular collaborator Efthymis Filippou were this casually realistic, an audience would probably find itself lost in the emotional thickets of another horror movie without glimpsing the director's larger purpose. Lanthimos's films can be both frustrating and awe-inspiring for their theatrical symbolism and mannered delivery, but emotional identification with the characters is hardly the point.

Here, Colin Farrell reprises the role of a dumbfounded everyman, a similar if more confident character than the lovelorn divorcee he played in the sex satire The Lobster in 2015. This time, he is a successful American cardiologist named Steven Murphy who befriends the teenage son (Barry Keoghan) of a patient who has died in his care.

Dr. Murphy – even the characters' names satirize the banal – buys the boy Martin an expensive watch and treats him to lunch. Eventually, he invites him home for dinner with his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), also a doctor, and his two children, the teenage Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and young Bob (Sunny Suljic). These gestures seem friendly but, thanks to the film's creeping rhythm and the studied flatness with which Farrell plays his part, they appear more as bribes than gifts; gradually, we become aware that Martin has some mysterious hold over the health of the whole Murphy family.

That plot might suggest we are in the midst of a supernatural thriller and in any other film you might find yourself wondering: Where are all the cleaning ladies, gardeners and dog walkers who must support the Murphys' privileged existence? Or how, even with their high-level medical connections, these parents can somehow get their kids MRIs without an appointment. But in Lanthimos's universe, the Murphys' opulent house and the near-empty hospital achieve a kind of spooky surrealism.

The dialogue is often mundane – the film opens with a prolonged discussion between Steven and a colleague about their fancy watches – and the actors' lurching delivery of these lines, often flattened, sometimes speechifying, sometimes rushed, but never naturalistic, forces the viewer to question the point of the action as Lanthimos crafts a dark satire about responsibility, justice and retribution.

His title is a reference to the Greek myth of Iphigenia, who is sacrificed by her father Agamemnon after he accidentally kills a deer belonging to the goddess Artemis; The Killing of a Sacred Deer takes a hard look at the notion of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth – almost literally. At one point, Martin bites Steven and then explains that the only way for him to understand the other man's pain is to bite himself. He proceeds to do that, viciously.

"It's a metaphor," he explains – rather unnecessarily.

Lanthimos and Filippou's script is erratic in that regard, sometimes exposing the most bland language as a bludgeon, in the manner of Harold Pinter, and sometimes forcing an audience away from the characters to little purpose.

Farrell's performance sets the tone, but can be annoying or distracting. As Anna, Kidman takes a gentler and more subtle approach to the portentous and pedestrian things she has to say. It's an easier performance to swallow, but perhaps if the whole cast acted this way, an audience would just wonder why everyone in this creepy little picture sounded stilted. (Lanthimos is known for not rehearsing his cast, but rather asking actors to simply repeat lines until he captures the effect he is after.)

It's in the mouth of the young Keoghan that the style works magnificently; uttering platitudes in a tone of ponderous solemnity or speaking subtext as text, the actor fashions Martin into a character of recalcitrant naiveté whose mysterious power is all the more frightening for that.

As the boy's horrible vengeance takes hold, the film culminates in one unforgettable scene where Lanthimos achieves both a heightened symbolism and some great black comedy in his final, chilling vision of retributive justice.

Writers Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani say revisiting the time Gordon was in a coma in 'The Big Sick' gave them new perspectives on the situation. Nanjiani also stars in the rom-com, which is based on their relationship.

The Canadian Press