In 2016 it was The OA, our favorite jazzercizing angel show. In 2015, it was Black Mirror S2. But in 2017, the year of our lord, Serena Williams, I don’t know if I’ve ever walked into a movie that I was as completely unprepared for as The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, and Barry Keoghan, this new feature from Dogtooth and The Lobster director Yorgos Lanthimos is…a lot.
At it’s heart, it’s a thrilling story of revenge: Steven (Farrell) is a cardiologist whose drinking years prior caused Martin’s (Keoghan) father’s death. In the aftermath, Steven sets up guilt-playdates with Martin, not realizing that he’s opened himself, his wife Anna (Kidman) and children Bob (Suljic) and Kim (Cassidy), to an otherworldly threat. Martin owns an unexplained power that makes his victims lose their ability to walk and eat, that climaxes with bleeding from the eyes and the (jada)kiss of death. The only way Steven can stop this Grecian pox on his house is to kill one of his own. An eye for an eye, as it were. Should Steven refuse to do so, well, as Martin puts it: “everyone will die” except Steven.
In its incredibly tense and uncomfortable two hour-ish runtime, Lanthimos draws out the epic and decidedly personal nature of this narrative with increasing levels of anxiety-inducing techniques and plain old weird shit. It works in many ways, from the Stepfordian delivery of lines to subdued palette that makes the presence of bright and gutsy colors all the more effective. Rather than dunk us into a bloodbath of a more generic horror film, Lanthimos constructs terror via a couple channels. The first is most obvious: the story itself is deeply human and biblical. I mean, what’s more personal than killing one person to save the others? However, almost in spite of this, Lanthimos creates an interesting barrier to pathos through direction.
By having Farrell & co perform almost unnecessary lines of thought, in a robotic, nearly cold way, we are at once completely attentive to what’s being said and completely unable to find any human connection to the players. It’s an interesting way to create tension in the audience’s experience. At times we’re horrified by Martin’s arcane power, at other times we’re unable to emotionally connect with Steven’s plight, and we even giggle whilst Steven’s children literally beg for their lives. The consummate experience is deeply horrific. Not just for us, but in the meta sense: some of our reactions are incongruent with the matter at hand and that’s scary unto itself. (Author’s Note: *Insert pedantic sentence here about how the audience is the real monster.*)
Framing is also a huge part of the construction of horror and discomfort in Sacred Deer. Lanthimos is a tinkerer, constantly adjusting our purview to either cram us in or leave us in desolation. In the case of the former, nothing is more unsettling than Martin’s spaghetti story.
The scene, wherein Anna pleads with Martin to lay off the whole “a pox upon your household” business, is deeply unsettling while also being quite spare. Martin, sitting in a chair adjacent to Anna, is coldly lit while wearing a white tee shirt and neutral boxers. Nothing spectacular here…except the bright reds and yellows of spaghetti he eats. In his creepy voice and cadence, he rattles off an otherwise innocuous story about eating pasta like his father. Cutting between Martin, Anna, and the spaghetti, however, Lanthimos is able to visually present the ominous nature of the story and the darker, veiled threats of Martin’s disposition. The spaghetti itself, vulgar in its red and yellowy contrast against the blues and whites of the scene, feels more and more like viscera every time Lanthimos cuts back to it. The sum effect is a scene that’s equally menacing and artful. Martin’s got murder on the brain and Lanthimos ensures we know it.
Lanthimos, of course, is no stranger to gore. In my book, Sacred Deer is a return to form of sorts to his breakout film, Dogtooth. The pointed moments of grisly violence, the alienation of a family, and a thoroughly unsettling patriarch all come back to play in his sandbox. Sacred Deer then, builds off his earlier work while also standing on its own in new and disturbing ways.
Similarly, it’s an interesting addition to A24’s current slate of new-age horror films, from The Witch to It Comes At Night. In each case, the company is building a portfolio of adventurous jaunts into new horrific spaces, trying to see what works. And potentially, just letting things happen just for the hell of it. It’s comforting because it shows that the studio is seemingly invested in letting the genre (and its adherents and creators) work within it in more than one way. Honestly, that kind of diversity (even within a growing stable of “spooky but artsy but also not too high concept” horror films) is a good thing.
So, at the very least, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a terrifying modern fable of unsettling domestic proportions that’ll have you trying to be a good samaritan to everyone. Or, at least, trying to figure out who amongst your loved ones you’d be willing to cull for the sake of the herd.
Dap owns Timberland boots and is committed to loving black women, eating good food and diversifying media as he sees fit and while he can. He can be found yelling into the abyss and being snarky on the following: IG | Twitter