Critical Viewing: The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

This week’s focus is on dialogue once again, and I finally got around to watching Yorgos Lanthimos’ extraordinary The Killing of a Sacred Deer, so this felt like an ideal candidate for this particular topic.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a drama about a surgeon, Steven, who’s relationship with a disturbed young man named Martin leads to disturbing consequences.

From the very beginning, the dialogue plays a major part in setting the tone and feel of the film. Much of the dialogue is very practical, no nonsense, even stilted to a degree. However, in the film it works to great effect. The detached feeling of the dialogue matches the characters lack of intimacy and emotional connection with each other and adds to the distance we feel between the family members, and indeed those outside of the family with whom they interact. Even when dramatic events unfold, there is only really one scene in which voices are raised and the tone of voices changes away from a detached delivery.

There are a couple of monologues in which the dialogue feels forced and unnatural, such as the daughter, Kim, in one of the climatic scenes, where she says, ‘I love you so much, don’t forget that. Remember that when I’m in my grave…’ Yet, because of the delivery and tone of the film, the unnaturalness of the dialogue fits perfectly with the overall feel of the piece.

The script is inspired by a Euripedes tragedy, and it feels that way, with the dramatic choice Steven has to make. The fact that he feels the need to make the choice and there’s no other way around it certainly adds to that mythic feeling, as does Martin’s seemingly god-like powers over life and death, although these are not referenced as though it’s something magical – it just seems to be considered a matter of fact. The dialogue feeling theatrical in places, including such monologues as described above add to the tragic myth atmosphere.

Unrelated to dialogue, I couldn’t help but think of Stanley Kubrick as I watched this film, in particular The Shining (1980). The cold detachment of the lens from the players; the slow, steady tracking shots, gradually moving along corridors with the characters, or moving in on them at a steady rate; the discordant soundtrack with its shrieking notes emphasising dramatic moments in ways that the characters are unwilling or unable to do so… It’s clear why some people did not get on with this film, in the same way that some are unable to get on with Kubrick’s works. But I found it a tragic, artistic, powerful film.

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