The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos; Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan
[4 out of 4 stars]
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), Yorgos Lanthimos’ most recent feature, opens with one of the most unsettling sequences I’ve experienced in recent memory. Over a black screen, Franz Schubert’s “Jesus Christus schwebt am Kreuzel” begins to play, a burst of brass followed by a rush of strings that gives way to a haunting choir. Part way through, the darkness dissipates to reveal a beating heart, and we are thrust into the final stages of an open heart surgery. Lanthimos moves his camera slowly up, spiraling away from the heart towards the ceiling, never cutting away, but rather gradually revealing more of the space around the heart for what is only over a minute, but seems to carry on and on. Once the initial surprise had ebbed, I found myself wondering if I had ever stared at a heart for so long, seeing it pump and shiver. I became enveloped by the artistry and gutsiness of the shot and was suddenly less concerned with the heart itself and more with how and why Lanthimos chose to show it. The heart does eventually go away, but that feeling of macabre entrancement never does, and so imbues the film with a particular tone of horrific entertainment in which Lanthimos revels.
For anyone familiar with the preceding films in Lanthimos’ filmography, you come to expect an oddness that defies the normal trappings of popular cinema. He expects deadpan performances from his actors and melds visual realism with plots that trespass against such appearances. Before The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Lobster (2015) depicted a world where any adult not in a committed relationship is sent to a ‘hotel’ where they must fall in love within a set amount of time or be turned into an animal of their choice. It is disturbing but also chiefly comic in its satire of cultural expectations around marriage. This dark humor is transplanted in some degree to The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but after 40 minutes it broaches a genre The Lobster never fully fell into: full-throated horror.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer follows Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), and their two children, Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy). Steven is a successful cardiologist, and the family lives in a luxurious mansion, filmed in a way that suggests a seemingly endless of chain of rooms. Eating dinner together early on, Bob and his father argue about him getting a haircut, while Anna supports Bob’s longer hair, and Kim stays tactfully out of the argument. This is a family of privilege that, except for the injection of the deadpan performances which Lanthimos requires, operates in a generally normal fashion. They eat dinner together, they chat about their days, both parents go off to work, and the siblings bicker about little things like music and who lost whose MP3 player. We see only glimpses of abnormality running beneath the quiet surface. When Anna and Steven go to bed after dinner, their sexual intimacy consists of Anna pretending to be an anesthetized patient with a pair of shots that call back to the unsettling sexuality of Kidman’s earlier work in Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Nonetheless, the greatest discomfort comes in the form of Martin (Barry Keoghan), a young man with whom Steven spends time with (the reason being a bit of a mystery until later in the film), and introduces to his family. Martin has a quality that exudes the sort of unnerving charisma that is common of characters like Hannibal Lecter. Everything he does, whether it be visiting Steven at the hospital, or giving gifts to Bob and Kim, draws your attention, but also, like the heart in the opening shot, somehow seems just off.
Part of this comes from how Lanthimos and his cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis shoot the film. There is no conventional spacing, rather an off-kilter rhythm of close-ups and long shots, bringing us too close or too far from the characters, never allowing us to nail down what exactly we’re seeing. Their close-ups also cut up bodies, a recognition of Steven’s day-job, showing only faces, or legs, or other body parts. Lanthimos also favours a long-take style which only adds to the ethos of uneasiness. Among these splintered shots, he inserts long tracking shots following Steven and Martin as they walk through the hospital halls, or static set pieces that linger on a tableau just long enough to make anything within seem unnatural. The result is a permeable tension and dread throughout the first 40 minutes of the film that is impossible to place, but nonetheless infects every scene, no matter how mundane the action within it may be.
But, at this 40 minute or so mark, Bob wakes up with numb legs, and Martin delivers on the horrific charisma that has preceded his every moment on screen. Martin and Steven sit in the hospital cafeteria, Bob in a room upstairs, and Martin reveals that his father died as a result of Steven’s possible inability while operating on him. Martin informs Steven that he has a few days to make a “simple” decision: kill one of your family members, or they will all become numb like Bob and progress towards certain death if Steven doesn’t make his decision. Kill one though, and the surviving two will return to perfect health just as if nothing had transpired. As Martin says, “You killed my father, so it’s only fair.”
The brilliance of this early twist is that the rest of the film is not about wondering what is going on, but rather trying to imagine what Steven and his family will do. From the point of the reveal, the film morphs into a horrific examination of the fault lines that run through a family. When Steven informs his wife of the situation, she alternates between blaming it all on him and trying to find a way out. Kidman injects Anna with moments of resolute fury that become all the more visceral due to her otherwise deadpan performance. At one point, she looks at Steven and says simply, “I think it makes most sense to kill one of the children. We can always have another.” It is chilling, and the affectless affirmative which Farrell gives Steven’s face is equally as stunning. As Kim and Bob begin to realize that one of them will most likely have to die, they engage in a high-stakes version of attempting to become the favorite child. Bob is unable to move his legs, but he crawls from his bed to the cabinet to pull out a pair of scissors and cut his hair, hoping that this little action to appease his father will mean that he is spared. Sibling rivalry has rarely been given a darker place in the movies.
As a whole, the final two acts of the film unravel as a staggering deconstruction of the nuclear family. Watching two parents debate which of their children to kill while the children themselves make their own cases for survival is a jarringly apt metaphor for the rivalries and favoritism that runs through most real families. Yet, lording over all of it is Martin, an avenging angel in the form of a spaghetti-slurping, fast-talking adolescent from hell. Barry Keoghan gives a villainous performance for the ages and is perfectly suited for the Lanthimos deadpan and lingering shots. The calm with which he delivers the news to Steven in that cafeteria sent more dread barreling down my spine than any deformed or knife-wielding psychopath could. The horror of this movie is purely human, be that in the degeneration of the family unit or in the way that Martin lords over them. We are never told quite exactly how he is making this sickness assault Steven’s children, but it hardly matters. He is a harbinger for the worst in Steven and Anna, a worst they rise to with little resistance.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is admittedly not the kind of movie that everyone will enjoy. Lanthimos’ quirks in style make his films less than accessible at the best of times. This film is a puzzle-box of layered themes digging into the concept of the family unit and how we undo one another as a result. It is a remarkably satisfying film for anyone who will stick with it.