Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Yorgos Lanthimos makes films that unsettle you. Like Dogtooth and The Lobster, these films challenge you through certain vivid, occasionally grotesque images as well as by blurring the lines between genre. It’s hard to know what to call his movies, though The Killing of a Sacred Deer is the closest thing to an outright horror movie as any he’s made.
His other two films that I’ve mentioned will make your skin crawl in parts but also make you laugh at other moments. You’re never sure if you’re about to cringe or chuckle, and that not knowing only adds suspense to otherwise expository, even boring moments of the story.
He never seems to waste a single shot. In The Killing of a Sacred Deer the camera often pushes slowly in or out of a scene, moving with the steady hand of a director who knows exactly the type of movie he’s making, the tone he wants to set and who knows exactly what he wants to say. But unlike Dogtooth or The Lobster, I’m not sure what he’s saying here.
Dogtooth was a satire, if you will, of family. It’s a story about a family that has become much too insular, and The Lobster is a bleak comedy about romance as a means of survival and the transactional nature that comes with it. The Killing of a Sacred Deer, though, is just an unsettling film that works on so many levels but which doesn’t seem to have much of a point, which may be the point. As far as horror movies go, I’d say this is a pretty damn good one. I’m a squeamish audience member, and I was frequently grimacing, holding my neck or trying to avoid even looking at the screen. Viscerally this is magnificent.
But Lanthimos has shown himself to be an incredible filmmaker and storyteller. His films don’t just work on the surface level but underneath as well. His troubling, calculated images cut deep and often suggest something we might have been missing about ourselves or at least about our culture. And with Sacred Deer, he adds his spin on a genre that his films had previously flirted with, if only because his style lends itself to horror. It’s like Lanthimos just made his movies in his own vision with no consideration of the world around him. A friend say, “Yo Yorgos, these are like horror movies.” And he said, “horror movies? What are those?” And his friend told him, so Yorgos shrugged and said, “I can make a horror movie.” And this is that horror movie.
Colin Farrell plays Steven Murphy, a heart surgeon whose alcoholism may have led to the death of one of his patients, a 46 year old man two years previous. Steven has a beautiful family, with wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and son Bob (Sunny Suljic). There’s also a boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan) who hangs out with Steven like they’re old friends.
Even before the movies delves into the more familiar qualities of a horror movie, it’s already pretty unsettling. Steven’s relationship with the teenaged Martin is unexplained at first, and we just have to go with it. With no context, it’s not unthinkable that their relationship is like a father and son or two friends or something more perverted. We have very little information to go on, other than these meetings seem to happen in secret and that Steven gifts Martin a fancy watch.
Even beyond that, every interaction in the film is incredibly stilted, much like the interactions in Lanthimos’ previous films. The characters talk only as much as they have to. They’re direct, speaking to each other like programs and ignoring anything resembling emotion. When a coworker asks Steven and Anna how the kids are, Steven flatly says that his daughter has started menstruating, with no visible recognition of the awkwardness of such an unprovoked comment.
There might be a message hear about the breakdown of a family, much like in Dogtooth or something about how transactional our lives have become. Characters communicate in an effort to get information. They never really speak or listen to the other person, and their conversations hardly dig beneath the surface.
One day Bob learns that he can’t walk, and Steven cannot figure out why. Soon, however, Martin tells him that this is a punishment for Steven killing Martin’s father. Martin explains that everyone in his family will first lose the ability to walk, then lose their appetite, then start bleeding from their eyes and finally die. That is, unless Steven kills one of them so that they’re equal, each having lost a beloved family member.
We never learn how Martin can cast this spell over Steven’s family, and we never learn definitively if Steven is responsible for the death of the boy’s father, though there’s reason to suspect he is. The film isn’t too concerned with what happened, just what’s happening now. So it doesn’t matter so much if Steven killed the boy’s father or why the boy has this warped sense of justice. All that matters is what Steven can do given this predicament.
Steven unravels pretty quickly, unleashing his anger on each of his family members before kidnapping and torturing Martin. This could be seen as the descent of a harmless family man, but the nature of the story is far too weird at the start for this to be the case. And plus, there have been other stories about such a thing, whether Breaking Bad or Hugh Jackman in Prisoners.
The ‘normal’ world at the start of the film is strange. The characters are incredibly distant from each other (Steven and Anna only seem to have sex with her pretending to be under general anesthesia, and later Kim mimics this behavior), and they remain distant as their lives hang in the balance.
Perhaps it’s Kim’s romantic feelings for Martin that cloud her judgment, but even Bob seems far too at ease given the circumstances of his slow physical decay. Later he will show some more fear, when the end closes in, but for the most part the kids remain detached from themselves. The commentary could be that their picture-perfect lives are already rotten at the core, so the physical destruction of their bodies is merely the last step in a process that’s been underway for quite some time.
This would be the first sign of a problem for Steven, but he seems woefully unaware of what happens in even his own house. Steven is hardly in control, something Anna remarks in regards to his career and to his alcoholism. He’s a doctor who, at this stage of his career, might just be playing at being a doctor. All he needs is the white coat and the right person to blame (his anesthesiologist Matthew) when things go south.
The plot of this film could be described incredibly quickly, and (spoiler) that’s what I’m going to do. Steven, a doctor, spends time with Martin, the son of a patient who died under his watch. After a six or so month friendship, Martin’s charms turn sinister when he tells Steven that the rest of his family will slowly die unless Steven kills one of them, thus atoning for the murder of Martin’s father. Eventually Steven knows what he must do, and he kills his son, though somewhat on accident.
So what we’re told has to happen, does happen. It’s a long process getting there as Steven searches for anyway out. His efforts are always incredibly futile, and when he acknowledges what must be done, his efforts become hilariously futile. In one of the darkest, funniest moments of the film, Steven visits his children’s school, even though they haven’t been in school for weeks or months, and he asks the principal which of his two kids he prefers, the implication being that the principal is unwittingly sentencing one child to die.
When the principal refuses to choose, Steven resorts to his final plan. He rounds up Anna and the kids, ties them to separate chairs, puts bags over their heads, pulls a beanie over his own head and then spins around in a circle and blindly fires his rifle. The first two shots miss, and the third kills his son.
The film ends with the three remaining family members at a diner. In walks Martin, and they just stare at him as they leave.
In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Steven kidnaps a child, holding him hostage for at least a couple days, and then he kills his own son, yet there is no indication that the police will get involved. Just as with Martin’s evil doings, there is no effort to explain this. It’s not about the illegal nature of what he does, just what it might do to his own soul.
In the film’s final scene, however, the surviving family does not seem any more distraught then before. In fact, this is the first time we’ve seen them out in public together, maybe just because there wasn’t a reason early in the story to show them out and about or because they actually have bonded through this peculiar, tragic trauma.
If this is a story about the undoing of a picture perfect family, it seems to say that nothing was undone. And yet, I think what Lanthimos might be saying is that the family was so broken long ago that killing a child hardly changes a thing. You might consider Anna the voice of reason early in the story considering her severe empathy for her children, but later on even she gives up, explaining that the death of their son or daughter isn’t the worst thing in the world considering they’re still young enough to have another, a replacement.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer attempts to show the slow destruction of a beautiful family and reveals that it was all smoldering ashes from the start. They’re like a beautiful house that you discover is just four walls with nothing in the middle. You try to drop a large stake through the middle of the house and realize there was nothing there to demolish.
The surface-level horror is effective but familiar to this genre, though Lanthimos’ real horror comes through in how his characters react to these circumstances. So often, horror movies deal with characters like us who panic when they suddenly find themselves in a life or death situation. Except for splitting up into smaller groups in the dark, or investigating that scary sound outside the cabin in the middle of the night, these characters generally act the way we think we’d act. They are our surrogate, in other words.
But in Lanthimos’ movies and certainly here, his characters do not react the way we would react, and the true discomfort comes from watching a story that looks to be set in our world but in which so little is ultimately recognizable. Again, you’re staring at something, at people that feel familiar, and it’s only by the end that you realize they’re nothing like us. Except, maybe he’s trying to say that they are, I’m just not yet sure how.