The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a pitiless film, with director Yorgos Lanthimos making absurdly high demands for anyone who dares buy a ticket. There is a brazen absence of logic, with slow-burn horror as its only replacement. There is deadpan comedy while characters quietly struggle through inexplicable suffering. The trouble is that these demands, including graphic imagery and violence, are in service of something shallow. The film indulges in nonstop inhumanity for its own sake. Unlike mother!, another recent challenging film that uses allegory and metaphor to strive for deeper meaning, the characters and actors here are merely stuck in a director’s hateful playground.
Before the title card, Lanthimos steels his camera on an abdomen midway through surgery. There are no hands at work, with the shot so tight that we cannot see who is under the knife. Instead, we watch the simple mechanics of the body’s internal organs at work—the effect is both grotesque and clinically fascinating. Perhaps Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) operated on this person, but Lanthimos conditions us not to trust what we see.
Steven has a strange relationship with Martin (Barry Keoghan), a sullen teenager: Steven performed surgery on Martin’s father, who died on the operating table, and now Steven keeps tabs on him—out of pity or a greater sense of guilt. Martin makes a bizarre ultimatum one afternoon. Steven must kill someone in his family—either his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), or one of his children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) or Bob (Sunny Suljic)—and if he doesn’t, all of them will suffer and die. At first, Steven ignores Martin, but then Bob wakes one morning and cannot move his legs. Martin’s prophecy is coming true, and the film follows Steven’s decision-making process.
Formally speaking, Lanthimos’ biggest influence in this film is Stanley Kubrick. There are long tracking shots, many of them featuring similar lenses to the ones Kubrick used, and characters are framed without much sympathy. Kubrick had a dim view of humanity, using his characters as pawns as a means to explore more cerebral ideas, and Lanthimos has a similar disinterest in things like sympathy or compassion. Steven is a callow character, keeping his feelings mostly to himself, and Farrell reprises the same defeated body language from his character in Lanthimos’ previous film The Lobster. It is a striking performance because Farrell successfully drains his natural charisma in favor of something more base and ordinary.
Another Kubrick connection is how Farrell has the same profession as Tom Cruise’s character in Eyes Wide Shut, which also starred Kidman as the doctor’s wife. That film explored sexuality and marriage, while The Killing of a Sacred Deer dismantles family instead. There is a hypnotic quality to the filmmaking, as there was with Kubrick, and many shots have impressive, austere elegance.
The trouble with The Killing of a Sacred Deer is that it has all the trappings of a ponderous art-house drama, with little of the intellectual rigor. There are other influences on the film, including allegory from the Bible and ancient Greek mythology, but they are moot in a modern tale where the lead characters have ordinary lives and zero curiosity.
Steven’s biggest flaw is that he is an egomaniac, the sort who internalizes conflict instead of involving his family, and there is nothing new to that character arc. The rest of Steven’s family, especially his children, are oddly resigned to living as Martin’s playthings. There are many scenes where Kim and Bob drag their bodies across the floor, as if their degradation is a grim joke. The script by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou only compounds the inhumanity with flat, hollow dialogue. Martin sounds like an inarticulate sadist, while Anna has virtually no agency whatsoever.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer has some intriguing critiques of the medical profession. Steven is quick to assign blame to his colleague Matthew (Bill Camp), who in turn does the same thing to him. Indeed, Steven learns something about the indignity of being a bystander, even if he experiences no real contrition or shame. This film does not work as an intellectual exercise, or an experimental genre film. Instead, the cumulative effect feels like a scene in A Clockwork Orange, another Kubrick film, where its hero watches violence with his eyes pried open. The stakes here are nowhere near that high, and yet The Killing of a Sacred Deer unspools like a trap, with Lanthimos needling his audience like we are his patient.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.