Warning: Review Contains Plot Spoilers
There are weird filmmakers and then there’s Yorgos Lanthimos, who’s proven to be one of the more outlandish voices in modern cinema and who has managed to bring his curious visions to the screen on a larger scale than I would have expected without making any compromises. Lathimos first emerged when his controversial 2009 Greek film Dogtooth showed up in Cannes and surprisingly won the Prix Un Certain Regard despite being a crazy disturbing movie. It fascinated fans of international cinema so much that it even garnered a nomination the next year for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, a choice that was almost certainly made by the special selecting committee. His follow-up, Alps, was something of a sophomore slump. People didn’t dislike it, but it just didn’t really cause the stir of his nominal debut. He did, however, rebound with his English Language debut The Lobster. That movie didn’t fully work for me but it was certainly interesting and provocative and made me interested to see more. Fortunately that “more” has arrived in the form of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, another English language film starring Colin Farrell and quite possibly his darkest film yet and that’s saying something.
The film looks at the life of a successful heart surgeon named Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) who lives in Cincinnati with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and adolescent son Bob (Sunny Suljic). The family is mostly happy despite a couple of strange quirks like Steven’s curious role-playing fetishes. As the film begins Steven has recently reconnected with a strange sixteen year old boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan) whose relation to Steven is not immediately clear. He tells his anesthesiologist Matthew (Bill Camp) that Martin is a classmate of his daughter with an interest in medicine who he’s been sort of mentoring, but he stills his wife that Martin is the son of a former patient of his who ended up dying in a car accident. Wherever it was that Steven first encountered Martin it becomes clear that Martin is more and more finding his way into Steven’s life whether Steven wants him to or not and when his son mysteriously stops being able to walk it becomes all the more urgent to understand who or what Martin is and find out just what it takes to get rid of him.
This movie is basically impossible to talk about meaningfully without getting into spoilers so I’m going to get right to it. The title “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is a reference to the Greek myth of Agamemnon, who found himself invoking the wrath of the goddess Artemis after he unknowingly kills a deer that was under her protection and was eventually forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia in order to satisfy her, thus allowing his troops to move on to the Trojan War. A similar dilemma comes into place here when it’s revealed that Martin has cursed Steven’s wife, son, and daughter through some form of unexplained magic in retaliation for Steven having killed his father through malpractice and will let them all three of them die unless Steven chooses one of the three and kills them himself. There are of course noticeable differences between the myth and the film, most importantly the fact that Steven is given less of an out than Agamemnon (who could have chosen to forgo going to Troy despite the incredible blow it would have dealt to his honor and reputation) was and unlike Agamemnon’s wife the wife here is ultimately on board with the sacrifice even if self-preservation is part of her reason.
The myth, at least in Aeschylus’ rather influential telling of it, is something of an exercise in an eye for an eye leaving the whole world blind. Agamemnon’s wife never forgives him sacrificing their daughter and upon her husband’s return from the war she conspires to kill him and in turn her surviving children, Orestes and Electra conspire to kill her and are then only themselves saved from the furies through divine intervention. Needless to say much of that isn’t paralleled in the movie so this probably shouldn’t be viewed as a complete one to one parallel of the myth but the film does have a similar interest in the morality of revenge and of what an eye for an eye truly means. There’s a point in the film where Martin bites Steven on the arm and then suddenly bites his own arm similarly out of some kind of warped sense of needing to restore the balance of power. I don’t, however, know that the film necessarily delves too deeply into the morality of this kind of revenge outside of the general ghastliness of Steven’s situation and perhaps the ending in which the family essentially turns the other cheek rather than perpetuating the cycle of violence that the myth descended into.
I found the overall plot of The Killing of a Sacred Deer fascinating and I also liked the way a lot of it was constructed. The sticking point for me is probably the same thing that tripped me up about The Lobster: the way that Lathimos has his characters interact it weird and off-putting. Where most writers and directors strive for conversational naturalism Lathimos is a filmmaker that tends to have his characters who speak in somewhat blunt and stilted dialogue and just do strange things when talking to each other. This wasn’t as clear in Dogtooth, firstly because it was in a foreign language and secondly because it was assumed that the family at its center was a sort of aberrant cult in the middle of a world of otherwise normal people. It also kind of made sense in The Lobster given that that movie was set in an otherworldly dystopia but was still a bit of a distraction that I pegged on Lathimos’ adjustment to making movies in English. With his latest film I’m pretty sure it’s intentional and it’s increasingly hard to explain given that the movie seems to take place in the real world despite the supernatural element strange psychodrama that the principal characters are involved in. It’s also distracting here because it becomes increasingly hard to tell whether it’s an important part of the puzzle that these characters are willing, for example, to discuss body hair and menstruation without any kind of filter. Does that make some grand statement about the kind of people these are or is it just a quirky red herring?
This is not an insignificant problem, it makes it kind of hard to get a real grasp of the characters when their personalities are prone to swing a lot and that becomes an issue when much of a film’s appeal is in seeing how its characters are going to respond to a fantastical situation. The benefit of the approach, I suppose, is that it primes you for the strangely casual way that the film introduces the supernatural at about the halfway point and also just that it adds flavor to the movie. Was that worth it? I don’t know but I wouldn’t say it was a deal breaker. In many ways this is a film I maybe want to give another look before making a final judgment, but it seems like another bold film from a filmmaker who is doing things that few other people are doing right now in cinema. It is however a movie that’s hard to pinpoint an audience for. It’s certainly not a movie that I’m going to recommend to random movie-goers and even among cinephilles it’s going to be a film that’s hard to describe without spoiling, especially if I want to get across just how weird and dark the film can get.