“Okay, I’m going to explain this very quickly so that I don’t hold you up. Yes, it’s exactly what you think. Just like you killed a member of my family, now you gotta kill a member of your family, to balance things out, understand? I can’t tell you who to kill, of course, that’s for you to decide. But, if you don’t do it, they will all get sick and die. Bob will die. Kim will die. Your wife will die. They will all get sick and die. One: paralysis of the limbs. Two: refusal of food to the point of starvation. Three: bleeding from the eyes. Four: death. One, two, three, four. Don’t worry, you won’t get sick. You just gotta stay calm, that’s all. There, I said it as quickly as I could. I hope I haven’t kept you too long.”
Describing Yorgos Lanthimos’s filmography to someone unfamiliar with the director is an interesting and often futile exercise. The Greek film director’s surrealist style of storytelling, haunting cinematography, and purposely emotionless manner of dialogue make his films an experience almost impossible to put into words. If simply recounting his work is awkward, watching his films is even stranger. From the wooden dialogue to the bizarre premises presented with no explanation, Lanthimos is surely an eccentric auteur. But that’s what makes watching his work such a mesmerizing activity, equally amusing and horrifying. It’s with this disclaimer that I will attempt to describe and review his latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Colin Farrell plays Steven Murphy, a cardiac surgeon responsible for the death of a man on the operating table several years ago. Steven has developed a peculiar relationship with the man’s son Martin (Barry Keoghan), meeting regularly with him and talking about various benign subjects. After Steven invites Martin to dinner, Martin insists on meeting at increasingly frequent intervals. When Steven can’t take the pestering any further, he meets with the boy to break off their relationship. Martin responds by informing him in a matter-of-fact manner that he has cursed Murphy’s family. They will all die, one by one, first by becoming paralyzed, then by refusing food, and finally by bleeding from their eyes. This can only be prevented, Martin says, if Steven murders one of them as a sacrifice. Sure enough, the curse appears to be true, and the remaining length of the film follows Steven’s dilemma as he watches his children slowly die.
The nature of Lanthimos’s worlds are always left mysterious. In his previous film The Lobster, singles were forced to find soul mates in a hotel or be transformed into an animal of their choosing. In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, these surreal premises of revenge are only established once by Martin hastily running through them like he’s presenting facts for a 7th grade science fair project. After that, they’re simply there, and we as the audience are forced to accept them without an explanation. Like many other experimental and arthouse films, Lanthimos’s works are not focused on why their worlds exist as they do, but how their characters react to them.
Perhaps the most immediately striking aspect of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, besides its premise, is the use of robotic, overly formal delivery for nearly every piece of dialogue. This manner of speaking is Lanthimos’s stylistic signature, used previously in The Lobster but for a different effect. In The Lobster, the monotonic dialogue worked a lot like traditional deadpan, giving its actors ridiculous things to say with a straight face and emotionless voice for comedic effect. The manner of delivery is still amusing, at least before becoming acclimated to it, but here it works more to intensify the film’s dark underlying tone, making the rare breaks where emotion shines through all the more powerful. In one scene for example, Farrell suddenly buries his head in his hands and sobs, heaving and whimpering uncontrollably like a child as he confronts the impossible reality of his situation. It’s a particularly memorable scene because it’s one of the few where the acting suddenly doesn’t feel stiff at all.
In general, the acting is quite excellent despite its oddity. Conveying emotion can be challenging enough for an actor, but doing so while remaining largely expressionless must be exponentially harder, and the entire cast delivers despite this extra constraint. Nicole Kidman is right at home with the style, bringing a cold and quiet intensity to Steven’s wife Anna, reminiscent of her chilly performance in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. The couple’s children, Bob and Kim (Sunny Suljic, Raffey Cassidy) are also particularly notable, especially for child actors. As the curse settles in and both become paralyzed, it becomes a surreally horrifying experience to watch them crawl around their house, up and down stairs like possessed little monsters.
But perhaps the most memorable performance is Barry Keoghan as the antagonist Martin. There are plenty of infamously heartless villains scattered throughout film history, but none quite like Martin. I don’t know if I even feel comfortable labeling him as a villain. The aloofness to which Keoghan brings to the table is unparalleled; he never sounds or feels malevolent in the slightest, even when announcing his grisly ultimatum to Steven. On the contrary, he seems to hold real sympathetic concern for the family, more a messenger of death than the deliverer. There’s a creepy air of otherworldliness about him, evocative of a mythological oracle, further reinforced by the disgusting light in which the camera paints him and his sloppy eating habits.
Lanthimos owes much to Kubrick, from the music design to the cinematography, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer almost feels like a homage to the iconic director at times. The classical musical selections, for example, call to mind the dissonant ringing ambiance of The Shining, lying in the background of almost every scene as a cue that danger is lurking. Much like the tone of the film, the camerawork is cold and methodical, gliding behind characters as they walk down sterile hospital corridors like a predator stalking its prey, not dissimilar to the tracking shots of Danny Torrance in The Shining.
Wide angle lenses dominate the cinematography, varying between distant long shots and penetrating close-ups to create a psychologically troubling feeling in the pit of your stomach. The final cherry on top that completes the cinematography is the way the camera seems to constantly zoom in nearly every still shot. There’s one scene in the film where Anna is sitting on the counter while Steven eats. Steven makes some benign small talk, making Anna furious because of his apparent lack of concern for their children’s situation. The camera slowly but surely zooms in on her face as her rage boils, as she listens to Steven drone on about pointless concerns while their children die upstairs. The subliminal camera zoom drives the anxious energy of the scene, and gives the unshakeable sense that the walls are closing in on these characters. It’s with this style of filmmaking that Lanthimos so effectively builds anticipation throughout the film, making sparse scenes of violence unbearably tense and gruesome.
Unlike The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a much tougher film to process. Both are incredibly thought-provoking, but it’s much harder to articulate exactly what this film is trying to say. It’s worth pointing out that Lanthimos is a Greek director and is clearly inspired by traditional Greek tragedies; specifically, the play ‘Iphigenia in Aulis‘ by Euripides serves as the main source for the film. Steven faces horrifically surreal consequences for accidentally killing a patient on the operating table but takes nearly the entire film to accept them, refusing to believe his family is dying because of his mistake and outright denying responsibility. In a climactic moment of the film, while Steven is torturing Martin, the boy responds:
“I just want…want to show you an example. That’s all. Just one little example to show you what I mean. [Martin bites Steven.] Should I apologize? No. Should I, should I stroke your wound? Actually, that would probably hurt even more, touching an open wound. No, there’s only one way to make you and me both feel better. [Martin bites himself.] Do you understand? It’s metaphorical. My example. It’s a metaphor. I mean, it’s…it’s symbolic.”
If this quote doesn’t sum up the central idea behind The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I don’t know what does. Martin argues that only blood can repay blood, not reconciliation, not forgiveness, but blood. Indeed, the sentiment is one of the most logical and ancient systems of justice, dating all the way back to Hammurabi’s Code. But as a human being with empathy and emotion, it’s utterly unjust and Steven’s situation is an unthinkable ethical predicament. How can you compare the value of a human life against another? As Lanthimos himself states, his goal in writing the script was “to create an impossible equation with an impossible answer”, and in this regard, he has succeeded. The only way Steven is able to come to a decision at all is to blindfold himself, run around in a circle and fire off a gun, hoping to shoot a random person in his family rather than choose. It’s such a pathetically clumsy plan that it borders on comical, but what other option does he have?
Yorgos Lanthimos represents the best of arthouse cinema, his filmography thought-provoking and unconventionally stated. With The Lobster and now The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I feel comfortable saying that going into one of his films is always going to be an experience worthy of much thought and discussion. Despite being very stylistically derivative of Kubrick, The Killing of a Sacred Deer stands on its own legs (no pun intended for poor Bob and Kim). The film is undoubtedly a highlight of 2017 cinema, and a model specimen of psychological horror, placing its characters in a nightmare in which logic and reason provide no refuge.