The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Absurdist filmmaker scares up a new film
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan
Over the course of just three films, Greek weirdo Yorgos Lanthimos has established himself as today’s premiere purveyor of absurdist cinema. In 2009’s Dogtooth he introduced the world to a sadistic father raising his family in such isolation from the outside world that the children have started inventing their own language. For 2011’s Alps Lanthimos imagined a business in which people impersonate the recently deceased in order to help clients through the grieving process. The Lobster, from 2015, was the writer-director’s biggest splash, a loopy sci-fi parable about a near-future world in which people unable to find romantic partners are transmogrified into wild animals. Those with a taste for the arty and eccentric have found a patron saint in Lanthimos. A shame then that his latest outing, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, ends up as his most accessible and—sadly—least interesting film to date.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer gets a lot of milage off its sheer mysteriousity. (“Mysteriousness” seems too ordinary a descriptor.) As a result, a straightforward description of its plot robs the film of what impact it does have. Also, it’s such a dishearteningly simple tale—certainly compared to his previous headscratchers—that the plot feels rather barren when laid out, end to end. What can be said is that the film stars Colin Farrell (from The Lobster) as Steven Murphy, a noted heart surgeon in Cincinnati. Murphy would seem to have it all: a successful practice, a fellow doctor for a wife (Nicole Kidman) and two lovely children (Raffery Cassidy, Sunny Suljic).
From the very get-go, the dialogue is awkward and stilted, with normally credible actors stumbling though endless, go-nowhere conversations about watch straps and household chores. Newcomers will wonder when Farrell became such a lousy actor. Those who’ve been down this road before will wait patiently for the threads of Lanthimos’ world to coalesce into something incomprehensibly bizarre. What we get, instead, is the introduction of a mysterious teenager named Martin (Barry Keoghan, recently of Dunkirk).
Murphy meets with Martin on what seems like a regular basis. He gives the kid various presents. The two seem to have known each other for some time. But they appear uncomfortably mismatched, with nothing to talk about and nothing in common. What links them together? Are they related? Is there some kind of unseemly relationship going on? Is the kid blackmailing the doctor? Something about Martin definitely seems ... off. (Autism? Drugs? A love for the music of Insane Clown Posse?) It’s hard to pin down—mostly because everybody in this film speaks like a space alien trying to approximate human speech anyway.
The first half of the film comes across like some sort of domestic thriller, with Dr. Murphy acting weird around his wife and kids and Martin basically stalking the upper-class family. Ominous whispers of Stanley Kubrick and Lars von Trier bounce off the film’s barren white walls. Eventually, however, the story takes a radical turn. We learn that our protagonist may or may not have an incident of medical malfeasance in his recent past. Martin is here to make sure that “justice” is served—which involves the good doctor having to make a gut-wrenching, Sophie’s Choice decision.
The second half of this journey takes on a distinct, Stephen King-esque horror movie vibe. Languid pacing and queer atmosphere aside, Lanthimos’ plot traces straight back to the same 1950s EC horror comics that King has spent his career photocopying. It all boils down to a familiar formula: Rich and/or privileged person causes harm to another human being and is “punished” for it by vague supernatural forces. If you’d prefer to be more literate about it, you could say it’s one of those classic Greek tragedies in which the hubris-filled hero is handed a quick downfall by the gods. (Yeah, yeah, the title is a direct reference to a myth involving King Agamemnon.) Given the amount of blood on display, however, EC seems more apt.
That’s really about it for the film. Lanthimos never bothers to explain what’s really happening, provides no kind of philosophical context to it and offers nothing in the way of moral wrap-up. Things happen. Until they don’t.
It’s not a lack of skill that hamstrings The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It looks gorgeous in its own grim, spare way. And it definitely builds an air of tension and mystery (thanks in no small part to the film’s assaultive musical score, which sounds like an appliance store being beat up for lunch money). Sorely missed here is Lanthimos’ deadpan sense of humor. His previous films all worked, on a certain level, as bizarre black comedies. The Killing of a Sacred Deer, in marked contrast, is perilously po-faced. Lanthimos never lacks for confidence, and there are audience members who will respond to this film’s meticulously curated blend of existential unease and torture porn. By hewing so close to a well-established genre, however, a filmmaker normally associated with befuddling originality just feels pretentious and unprepared.