The Killing of a Sacred Deer reveals Yorgos Lanthimos as the modern master of dark absurdism, if that’s your thing.
I don’t understand why I should have to pay the price. Why my children should have to pay the price.
It’s not a very important critical observance, but Yorgos Lanthimos loves to reference animals that don’t actually appear in his films in their titles. So it was with Dogtooth and The Lobster, and there’s not a buck, doe, or fawn to be seen in his new film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer. If you want to understand the film’s title, you’ll have to brush up on your Greek myths.
As the Greeks prepare to depart for the Trojan War, King Agamemnon kills a deer in the sacred grove of the goddess Artemis. In response, the goddess disrupts the winds, preventing the king from sailing. But Agamemnon is offered a way out. The murdered deer was precious and sacred to Artemis. In return, he only need sacrifice what is sacred to him and Artemis will allow him to depart for Troy: his daughter Iphigenia. It’s a key example of the tragic hero. The audience knows what the right decision should be, but Agamemnon, hell-bent on war, can’t escape his tragic flaw, and agrees to murder his own daughter in order to sail, revealing his true character in the process.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer opens with a full-screen shot of an unidentified mass pulsating rhythmically, shortly revealed to be a beating heart as the camera pulls back to reveal the operating window around it. Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is finishing an open heart surgery, and chatting about wristwatches with his friend and anesthesiologist, Matthew, played by a mustached Bill Camp. Matthew offers to introduce Steven to his dealer, a former patient who’s sure to give the surgeon a good deal.
Steven seems to have a perfect life. He’s both liked and respected by his colleagues, even giving a well-received speech at a cardiology convention in the presence of his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman). He has the big house to match his job title, and two loving children whose biggest squabbles appear to be over haircuts and chores. He even abstains from alcohol, even cautioning Matthew against over-indulgences that could hurt his job performance. His only minor vice appears to be the aforementioned interest in expensive watches, which he can easily afford.
Indeed, we soon see Stephen gifting one to a teenaged boy when they meet at a diner. Steven appears to be a mentor of sorts to Martin (Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk). The pair visit each other’s houses for dinner and exchange gifts frequently, and even Anna comments on what a polite young man Martin is. On the surface, that’s true. Martin is nothing but well-mannered in his interactions, but in typical Lanthimos fashion, there’s something unerringly odd about he and Steven’s relationship. Colin Farrell, wearing a beard this time around, has a gift for delivering the writer-director’s stunted dialogue, and Keoghan appears to be of the same cloth. The pair effortlessly make discussions about work and apple pie feel uncomfortable even when you can’t put a finger on exactly why.
One morning Steven’s son, Bob, falls sick with a mysterious illness that leaves him paralyzed from the waist down. None of his colleagues can find anything wrong with the child after a litany of tests and scans, and the cardiologist is left baffled as to the cause. Is it stress? Psychosomatic? Or something far more nefarious? It’s the eerie Martin who seems to have an answer to what ails the child after all the efforts of modern medicine have failed. “It’s not serious,” Steven tells him after he visits Bob at the hospital. “No. It is,” Martin responds, launching the film towards the absurdist horror that it will become. “They will all get sick and die. Bob will die. Kim will die. Your wife will die. Understand?” And then he offers Steven a horrible choice.
Lanthimos has a habit of keeping his stories close to the vest, dropping clues that fill in the full story as his film progresses, only revealing that Martin’s father died in an accident two years before the film takes place. Lanthimos will fill in the details later, like the slow pull-back from the beating heart that opens the film. The later revelations will offer more context, but that clinical framing won’t make it any less unsettling to watch.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is much darker than any film Lanthimos has made before. Whereas Dogtooth and The Lobster were societal investigations of the weird, Sacred Deer turns its gaze inward to focus on the family, prying into how household relationship dynamics would break down under the stress of an unexplainable dark assault. Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is an obvious influence on Lanthimos’ already David Lynchian style. The Killing of a Sacred Deer will never scare the viewer like a horror film. Instead, it amps up the psychological pressure until you’re begging for a madman with an ax to leap out of a corridor during one of the film’s long hospital hallway shots. That, at least, would be a problem you could actually confront and defeat.
Lanthimos’ frequent cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis offers the director a wider palette of colors and angles than anything he had in The Lobster or Dogtooth, whose tightly-framed shots echoed those films’ themes of captivity. Here, Bakatakis frequently frames the actors as overwhelmed by cavernous rooms of the city around them as if to visually accentuate the characters’ helplessness.
Equally unsettling is editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis’ penchant for pairing voiceover with images of open-heart surgery or a fish being filleted, implying violence in acts that are perfectly acceptable to society. You would carve a fish to pieces for food, or slice open a man to operate on his organs. Lanthimos wants the audience to look at the fine line that separates those activities and the ones that we’d all abhor if you changed a purpose or patient. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is for people who thought The Lobster was just a little too heartwarming. But while the film is undeniably bleak, it’s also Lanthimos’ funniest work to date. I found myself openly laughing at the film’s deadpan black humor. The writer-director has a real gift for finding the right balance of psychological terror, humor, strangeness, and heartbreak.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a rich text to mine, from its modern takes on an ancient myth to its investigation of the sacred. The Agamemnon story and its Christian analogue, Abraham and Isaac, hang heavily over the story. It’s no accident that the film’s main character works in a field known for stereotypical God complexes, or that Steven’s daughter’s school choir performs religious music. But whereas Mother!, another religiously symbolic film, couldn’t escape the weight of its mythic frame, the characters in The Killing of a Sacred Deer are capable of existing on their own, allowing the surrounding myth to exist as a meta-textual element, and not drown the film.
Like all of Lanthimos’ work, the film will be too bleak for many viewers. It certainly was for the lady behind me in the theater who’s breathy “what is this?” was a constant soundtrack for the film’s duration. Make sure you know what you’re in for before you head to a theater. But if you can handle Lanthimos’ particular cup of tea, you’re in for a remarkable work from the current master of pitch black psychological absurdism. Its’s one of the year’s best films.