I’m not an attorney, but I’ve heard of the legal term known as Clean Hands. I might have heard it first from Judge Judy. Regardless, in layman’s speak, it means a defendant claims that a plaintiff can’t argue for equal remedy because they’re engaged in bad acts as well. I realize a lawyer might challenge my interpretation, but I’m reviewing a movie and I’m not on trial. Clean Hands could have been a more appropriate name than what I’m writing about, but instead we have the more pretentious The Killing of a Sacred Deer from director Yorgos Lanthimos.
The aggrieved party in our story is teenager Martin (Barry Keoghan), whose father died three years ago in a surgery performed by Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell, reuniting with his The Lobster director). The two befriend each other after the incident and Martin is eventually ingratiating himself with the doc’s family – wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), teen daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and younger brother Bob (Sunny Suljic). Martin seems a bit strange and too eager to please, but his motives turn out far darker. He blames the doctor for his loss and plans to exact revenge.
Lanthimos isn’t interested with playing in the run of the mill revenge fantasy thriller genre. No family pet is harmed in the making of his screenplay with Efthymis Filippou, though there is one. Instead Martin wants to harm the family and any one of them will do. He also manages to capture the heart of Kim while he moves forward with his acts.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a dark and unsettling experience that sometimes struggles to earn the pain we go through watching it. From a technical standpoint, it’s often expertly rendered with a Kubrick like sense of clinical precision and a loud and evocative score. Farrell and Kidman (just seen together in The Beguiled) are just fine as the parents facing increasingly difficult circumstances and choices, but it’s Keoghan who electrifies plenty of his scenes. His misguided Martin gets under everyone’s skin, including ours.
That said, the style of Deer is frequently more potent than its subject and I struggled with whether it was worth it in the end. For all its bells and whistles, it kind of is a typical revenge fantasy with art house touches. Dr. Murphy may have made his mistakes, but there’s a Clean Hands defense when he discovers Martin’s bad acts. For this viewer, I offer a mixed defense of the picture itself.
**1/2 (out of four)