by Will Ross
I can’t remember the last time I saw a film that presented a fairly straightforward, coherent narrative that was so unswervingly and gleefully willing to break rules of craft as The Killing of a Sacred Deer. If I'm being honest, this endears me towards director Yorgos Lanthimos, his co-writer Efthymis Filippou, and the film itself a great deal in and of itself. Maybe even more than they deserve. But there is merit to movies that are so willing to rend our viewing sensibilities limb from limb without being cruel about it, and while the film is mercilessly dark and biting, it would be a long reach for me to call it cruel.
The first shot of The Killing of a Sacred Deer may seem cruel, in a graphic way: it slowly zooms out from a beating heart in an open chest cavity as it’s being operated on. It’s a sardonic nod to the coming dissection of polite family life that will show the grotesque processes that motivate people, yet go conspicuously unspoken or unnoticed. While not every beat of the film’s assault on filmgoing complacency is so retrospectively clear in its intent — after all, clearly delineable intent is one of the most sacred of audience expectations — that clinical tearing up of surfaces is no accident. As we get to know Doctor Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) and his family, one of the first stylizations to become obvious is that everyone speaks in flat tones and monorhythmic cadences, removing charisma from conversation. Everyone seems bored with their own persona.
And so they continue their abrasively untainted upper-class lives, even though every fibre of the film screams at us that something is wrong: shots are wildly unbalanced in their composition, they frequently slow-zoom towards a part of the frame other than its main subjects, focal lengths cut suddenly from a sickening fish-eye wide lens to a space-flattening telephoto long lens, the musical score is thin, shrill, and atonal, dialogue is sometimes buried in a muddy mix or so rapid it’s unfollowable, and all this dominates the story of Dr. Murphy, his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), and his children Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic) long before anything goes incontrovertibly wrong with it.
Over its length, the film doesn’t escalate in its use of this trickery in cinematography and sound, but it more than makes up for this with the gradually mounting absurdity of the scenario. It would be telling too much to reveal the full extent of the disaster that befalls the Murphys. Suffice to say, it revolves around a teenager, Martin (Barry Keoghan), whom the doctor has formed a close bond to sometime before the film begins. Their friendship is platonic, but Steven seems inexplicably unwilling to tell his family about it. Farrell and Kidman’s slow turns towards mania (viper-eyed anger and intensity from Kidman, panicked idiocy from Farrell) make their performances especially magnetic, but Keoghan achieves something special as well, an undefinable uncanniness and flatness beyond that shown by anyone else whichsignals to us that, even among these people who act like space aliens imitating humans, there is something very, very wrong with this boy in particular.
And everyone seems to realize it, except for Farrell’s hapless patriarch. It gradually becomes clear (to the audience and some of the characters themselves) that, even though he is a highly respected and accomplished heart surgeon, Steven Murphy is not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. Not only is he caught in a hopelessly selfish denial of the danger facing his family, he can’t conceive any possible means of responding to it except the first impulse to flit into his head; those impulses range from parodies of the quotidian denials common in lifestyles of wealth and privilege, to kidnapping and beatings without any clear aim except to assert his own control and sate his ego. In its surreal climax, he arrives to his final, inevitable decision in both the most cowardly and ludicrously unwise fashion humanly possible. It’s one of the most hilariously straight-faced eruptions of over-the-top foolishness I’ve seen in a film for a long time.
The stupidity of its central character is a method of Lanthimos’s efforts to disembowel bourgeois smugness, but the beating heart at the center of it all is the film’s embrace of the unknowable. It’s never clearly explained how, exactly, the plot against the Murphy family works, or why it doesn’t work the way we’re explicitly told it will, or what granted their tormentors the ability to wield their terrible power. Other loose ends, be they plotholes (how could the police possibly not get involved at that point?) or characters’ relationships (just what the hell is going on between Kim and Martin, exactly?) or other details makes it difficult to draw clear lines defining many of the film’s parts as allegorical farce, magical realism, or surrealism. Even its title is inexplicable — it seems a reference to Lanthimos’s concerted evisceration of “sacred cows” that uphold the self-afforded status of the rich and comfortable, yet there is no deer in the film that would seem to justify changing the idiom from “cow” to “deer” (unless I’m missing some obscure allusion, but that would only prove my point).
If The Killing of a Sacred Deer has a weakness, it’s that its multivariate shattering of norms and expectations suggests a more complex work of psychological horror and satire than what really appears to be there, even with hindsight. There isn’t much shading or context given to its cry of “the privileged nuclear family cannot acknowledge taboos or admit their hidden perversity!” That’s a worthwhile complaint to lodge, and a fitting occasion for playfully needling its subjects (and its audience), but also an awfully thin subtext for a work so eager to overwhelm with conspicuous stylistic choices. Still, that lack of social depth doesn’t undermine just how dense and delirious the experience of watching this is, qualities that would make this a worthwhile effort even if it had no political targets to legitimize it as art. Too few films are willing to use form to twist the knife of tension or set their audience off-balance, and a film that commits to it so wildly, with such a wicked sense of humour, is a fairly rare beast, especially in an arthouse community that can sometimes overvalue solemn austerity.