Director Yorgos Lanthimos’s reputation for creating impenetrable, unsettling films is well-earned. Everything from Dogtooth to The Lobster leaves your psyche just a little bit twisted after watching it. Lanthimos continues that tradition with The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Synopsis: “Steven (Colin Farrell), a charismatic surgeon, is forced to make an unthinkable sacrifice after his life starts to fall apart, when the behavior of a teenage boy he has taken under his wing turns sinister.”
First off – if you’re thinking about watching this movie and haven’t seen any of the director’s other work be prepared to be completely confused and possibly off-put by the way the characters speak and behave. Lanthimos has a very specific directorial style when it comes to performances and it takes a while to get used to at first watch. Once you’re deep into the story though, his penchant for slightly-off portrayals from his actors enhances the overall uncomforting tone of his work. So, just be ready for that.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer plays like a Greek tragedy with Steven (Farrell) as our tragic hero (think Oedipus or Hamlet). As a strict man of science his own hubris ultimately causes his downfall in the form of something less tangible than he is willing to comprehend. Fate, in this case, is an unstoppable force and no amount of logic or reason can interfere with its path – a perfect theme for Lanthimos’ darkly bizarre and often morbidly absurd style of filmmaking. That absurdity plays out in Steven attempting to deal with the unknown, seemingly supernatural force impacting his family at the (supposed) hands of Martin – a young boy who has inserted himself in Steven’s life.
That conflict between the known and unknown drives a lot of Sacred Deer’s tension (Why are his children loosing control of their legs? Why can’t modern medicine find a reason or a cure? What if the impossible “curse” Martin put on his family is actually real?). While Steven impotently tries to assert control over the unknown, his children and wife (Nicole Kidman) grapple with accepting their fate and attempting to divert its deadly path away from them. What ensues is one of the more gasp-inducing, head-shaking, mind-boggling “horror/thrillers” in recent memory.
Most films dealing with this type of morality-related curse focus on terrorizing the audience into submission. A curse would commonly be so horrific or grotesque (often involving ghost-related jump scares) that it makes the protagonist’s situation seem only superficially untenable. Where Sacred Deer rises above others in the same genre is its ability to do much, much more with so very little. Every moment of fear – genuine fear, the kind that keeps you up at night with your brain running in overdrive attempting to comprehend what’s happening – comes from not knowing its origin and the encroaching realization that the only way to stop it not only defies reason, but also transcends your perceived moral boundaries (sorry for the vagueness, but trust me, it’ll all make sense after you watch it). And for a film that trades in creepiness and terror – there is very little actual violence and gore. The tension and implied threat the director creates incites a more deeply felt reaction than any volume of viscera ever could. Fear is a game of inches and Scared Deer utilizes an escalating death of a thousand cuts to break Steven and leave the viewer aghast with disbelief at the ultimate resolution he decides upon.
Farrell’s portrayal of Steven’s breakdown is so well-done that you barely even realize its happening. The fear that encroaches upon him is so methodically executed that you can vicariously feel yourself spiraling downward just as Steven does. Nicole Kidman as Anna (Steven’s wife) steals the show a bit with an understated intensity and drive masked beneath a measured, Stepford-wife exterior. Similar to Steven, her mask deteriorates at such a glacial pace that when you start to think she’s becoming the voice of reason you realize that she’s just as far gone as her husband.
The children (Sunny Suljic and Raffey Cassidy) are perhaps the most unsettling additions to the cast. Their limp, ragdoll lower extremities dragging behind them in the latter half of the film will leave a uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach. In a more conventional film, a more visually explicit thing might have happened (like having their legs chopped off) but because the viewer doesn’t know anything about their affliction, it creates a more deeply disturbing sense of dread. Just like mommy and daddy, the children’s naiveté and youthful aplomb eventually give way to behavior and attempted manipulation they probably never imaged.
Then there’s Barry Keoghan as Martin. The one constant in this psychologically entropic nightmare. His other-worldly stoicism deepens the impending madness of the Murphy family. In many ways he is less an antagonist to the Murphy’s and more closely fills the function of the classical Greek chorus – always present, but never really affected by the other characters’ actions. His prescient will upends everything around him; as if the physical embodiment of fate itself, his unbiased acceptance of the events unfolding makes raises always keeps us guessing whether or not he’s actually orchestrated everything that’s happening.
So…yeah – the movie is a bit of a mind fuck, but not in a try-hard way. In regards to Lanthimos’ body of work, this one is his most gorgeously captured and scored films to date. It is, for lack of a better phrase, a beautiful nightmare that you can only wake up from in exchange for a sliver of your peace of mind.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is in select cinemas now – if you’re lucky enough to live in a market that gets it, let us know what you thought on Twitter @official_FAN