The Killing of a Sacred Deer
|Writer(s)||Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou|
|Release Date||November 3, 2017|
In many ways, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a pitch-black comedy. Which is just as well, really – it’s fucking hysterical.
Isn’t it a horror film?
Technically, but who cares? Certainly not Yorgos Lanthimos, who made 2009’s Dogtooth and 2015’s well-received The Lobster. Both weird films, granted, and both films with a relationship to genre a little bit like my relationship to sandwich fillings. I know I should pick one and stick to it, but where’s the fun in that?
I mean, yes, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is supposed to be chilling. And horrifying, I guess. People will tell you it’s a profound meditation on karma and guilt and the cyclical, all-encompassing nature of revenge. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind; all of that. I just happened to find it entirely hilarious. Some bits are supposed to be funny. Some bits aren’t, but end up being funny anyway. Either way, I had a jolly old time watching it.
This isn’t what I’ve heard from other outlets…
Well, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is an art film, which is a polite way of saying that critics will love it dearly and likely fondle themselves to repeat viewings, and regular audiences will probably find it confusing and ridiculous. Luckily for everyone, I don’t identify with typical critics (despite me writing critically for a living) and, naturally, I consider myself above the average moviegoer. So, for someone like me, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is at times exquisite and compelling, and at other times try-hard nonsense with delusions of profundity. But it’s mostly hilarious.
Okay. What’s it about?
Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a surgeon with a beautiful wife (Nicole Kidman) and two children (Raffey Cassidy; Sunny Suljic). You can tell he’s a surgeon because he likes to have sex with his wife while she pretends to be under the influence of general anaesthetic. I live on the edge, so I looked this up. The proper term is “somnophilia”. I then went to my partner and told her that I often feel like a somnophiliac, to which she replied, after consulting Google, “If I could get away with being unconscious, believe me, I would.”
Steven and his lovely family live in a house that a more cynical man might suggest had been designed specifically to facilitate eerie camera work. It’s a nice place, but all is not well in the Murphy household. Steven has been meeting secretly with a creepy weirdo called Martin (Barry Keoghan), whose father died on Steven’s operating table. Steven is doing the kid a solid out of guilt. He buys him watches and lunch and hosts him for dinner. He visits Martin’s mother. I know you think you know where this is going, but you probably don’t.
So, where is it going?
Without giving away too much, Martin wants justice for his father’s death. He curses Steven’s wife and kids with a weird mystic ailment that at first renders their legs useless, then makes them deny food to the point of starvation, then makes them bleed from the eyes, then makes them die. He’s not a nice kid. Of course, Steven’s daughter takes a shine to him, which only justifies my intention to murder all my daughter’s future boyfriends on sight and bury them in the garden.
Anyway – Steven can break the curse by murdering a member of his family. I’d select my wife without hesitation, but he finds the decision much more difficult. Which is just as well, I guess, as we wouldn’t have a film to watch otherwise.
That doesn’t sound funny at all.
Well, trust me, it is. Lanthimos intentionally has everyone act with no emotion or personality. They’re reading the lines aloud as though they have the script held up in front of them. That’s funny. He also has them say bizarrely personal things, or converse in the most boring way possible about boring nonsense. The opening dialogue exchange is between Steven and his anaesthesiologist buddy, about a watch. It’s just a bare exchange of facts: “Is it water resistant?” “Yes, up to 300 meters.” “I would have bought it with a leather strap, not a metal strap.” Later, at a medical function, the same guy asks Steven and his wife how their kids are doing. “My daughter just started menstruating,” he replies. This, needless to say, is funny.
What’s also funny, even though it shouldn’t be, is when the kids get cursed. It’s partly because they come out with funny stuff: At one point the daughter, having lost her MP3 player, asks her brother if she can have his when he dies. But it’s also because they can’t use their legs, and so Lanthimos has them frequently fall over, roll out of bed, flop downstairs like stranded fish, and drag themselves for large distances in excruciatingly lengthy shots. I found this to be very enjoyable.
It’s not supposed to be, is it?
Sometimes, but admittedly no, not always. I must concede that The Killing of a Sacred Deer never managed to stir in me the emotions it was clearly trying to. I found the tragic bits just as amusing as the amusing bits, thanks mostly to what I would consider to be, in academic terms, Lanthimos laying it on way too fucking thick.
It’s all a metaphor, of course. The title makes obvious reference to the Greek king Agamemnon, who accidentally killed a sacred deer belonging to Artemis, and was forced to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, as penance. The film is buried beneath layers of perverse abstraction that often borders on the absurd, to such an extent that Lanthimos’ message becomes obscured. I guess it had to be metaphorical. The film goes to some challenging and provoking places, and the no-win conundrum at its core is so miserable that a literal version of it would be far more unpleasant that most audiences would be willing to put up with.
Did you like The Killing of a Sacred Deer?
I did – for almost entirely the wrong reasons. As a piece of art, its intention is to sketch an unnerving and alien portrait of a world that looks like ours but doesn’t sound like it or abide by its rules, and mission firmly accomplished in that regard. But the artifice – as undeniably impressive as some of it is – only distracted me from the story. I never felt as though I was being legitimately moved or interrogated by its themes and ideas. Some of the shots and sets are gorgeous, but I observed with the same glassy-eyed disinterest as the characters that dragged themselves around inside them.
It’s easy to see why people love this film, and easier still to see why people hate it. But I haven’t yet encountered anyone who found it as funny as I did, so maybe check it out for yourself and let me know.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
- The cinematography is stunning.
- It is truly hilarious - even when it isn't supposed to be.
- The performances (particularly Farrell and Barry Keoghan) are excellent.
- The metaphors and stylistic flourishes are a bit too much and dilute the central story.
- Yorgos Lanthimos makes really, really strange films. Many people will simply hate it.
- It's truly hilarious - even when it isn't supposed to be.