“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is the latest offering from arthouse Greek weird-wave director Yorgos Lanthimos after his 2015 breakthrough into the mainstream with the unorthodox success of “The Lobster.”
The film loosely tells a modern version of the ancient play Iphigenia in Aulis. Steven (played by Colin Farrell) is a rich surgeon, married to Anna (Nicole Kidman), who has an ongoing friendship with Martin, a teenage boy (played by Barry Keoghan) whose father died during a surgery Farrell performed. Suddenly, Farrell’s children lose the ability to walk. Keoghan tells Farrell that all of his family members will fall to paralysis, then they will completely lose their appetite, then they will bleed from their eyes, and ultimately die, unless Farrell kills one of them. This is retribution for the death of Keoghan’s father.
The first half of the movie is quite dull, albeit ominous. Perhaps Lanthimos tests his audiences to weed out any fair-weather fans. Well, it worked, because two people exited the theatre early. The actors deliver all their lines plainly, almost robotically. The dialogue is monotonous, discussing watch features, the order to eat food, haircuts, homemade lemonade and the semantics of watering the plants or walking the dog. They even discuss embarrassing personal details matter-of-factly, like the amount of Keoghan’s underarm hair or Farrell’s daughter casually mentioning she got her first period. I would have cried of boredom if not for a sense of impending doom.
The shots are eternally restless. Almost every medium close-up has a creepy slow zoom in or zoom out. Whenever they roam the halls of the hospital the camera tracks too quickly, too far from the characters and too low or too high. It seems the only time the picture stays still is with unnecessary long shots off-center with too much empty space. The music is either sparse and discordant or oppressively bombastic. All of this disorients the viewer, but once you allow yourself to sink into the rhythm it becomes mesmerizing.
“The Sacred Killing of a Deer” must differ greatly to watch by yourself versus in a theatre. Many of the spectators nervously laughed at the sheer awkwardness of some of the scenes, but I found it mostly horrifying.
For how muted the first half is, the second half is equally as loud and abrasively surreal. At one point Keoghan bites a chunk out of his arm and spits it out, claiming “It’s a metaphor!” A metaphor for what, you may ask? The jury’s still out on that one.
Nothing in the film resembles sentimentality or pandering. It includes all of the skin-crawling idiosyncrasies in life that movies tend to gloss over. The movie opens with with an open-heart surgery. We all have the notion that hearts look like Valentine’s Day cards and source all of our emotions, but Lanthimos seeks to undermine that type of romanticism with the actual organ: pale, veiny and diligently pulsing. The movie includes an extended scene of someone cutting up a fish. There is a part where Keoghan eats a plate of spaghetti and it is one of the most troubling things I’ve ever seen. You can hear the fork scraping on the plate and his slurping on the noodles. At one point he inserts a forkful into his mouth and then returns it to the plate.
Lanthimos portrays sex repugnantly. Farrell can only have sex when Kidman pretends to be unconscious. Farrell’s thumb gets aggressively sucked on in a bizarre cameo from Alicia Silverstone of “Clueless” fame. Kidman gruffly jerks off an anesthesiologist in a car in the middle of the day in order to obtain medical information. Farrell tells his young son a story about when he was his age and embarrassed about not ejaculating enough, so he masturbated his passed-out-drunk father and was surprised at the amount of semen he ejaculated.
Farrell and Kidman both give excellent, understated performances, showing glimpses of pure rage and agonizing grief. Keoghan, who was in “Dunkirk” earlier this year, steals the show. He’s a perfect fit for this role; he’s so effortlessly sinister. Also, his face just looks so unique. I predict a bright future. The children, played by Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic, are solid, especially in a film with such a distinct, strange vision.
The central message to glean from the movie, if there exists any to glean, we can find in this quote from Kidman’s character as she argues with Farrell’s character: “You have beautiful hands. I never noticed before. Everybody’s been telling me lately what beautiful hands you have, and now I can see for myself, nice and clean. But so what if they’re beautiful, they’re lifeless. Sometimes Steven you’re just an incompetent man who goes on and on saying stupid things like let’s do a scan, let’s do an ultrasound, let’s wear brown socks, let’s make mashed potatoes, let’s go to the beach house… Our two children are dying in the next room, but yes I can make you mashed potatoes tomorrow.” We fill our lives with such mundane fodder in order to ignore all of the horrible things we do to each other as well as the horrible things happening all around the world all the time.
A24 deserves all the praise in the world for consistently putting out the most original movies. They have put out some of my favorite movies of the year, including “It Comes at Night,” “A Ghost Story” and “Good Time.” I have yet to see “The Florida Project,” “Lady Bird” or “The Disaster Artist” but they look fantastic as well.
It can be difficult to critique a movie so vehemently attempting to alienate the audience. Yes, there are holes in character development and the ending feels anti-climactic, but maybe that was the intention, Lanthimos once again subverting our expectations.
“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is not a movie to unwind after work or good for a date night, unless you and your significant other are demented sadists. It is the movie you watch when you get stuck in a tedious rut, and you need to shock your system and rattle your brain in order to see a new perspective.