With all the horror films that popped out last year (and continue to emerge this year) few if any come close to being as bizarre as Yorgos Lanthimos' The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
The film starts right off, with an opening shot of what looks like a piece of muscle jerking with obscene frequency (looks like a grotesque Japanese porn video I saw once, of an act of masturbation recorded internally--you don't want to know the details); turn out it's video footage of open-heart surgery (funny how Lanthimos can make something so crucial to survival feel so repulsive even perverse). Cut to cardiothoracic surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) pulling off blooded gloves and surgical gown. He enjoys a good life: gorgeous wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), beautiful children Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic), spacious stately home, great job in an ultramodern hospital--can't do much better than that.
Only who is Martin (Barry Keoghan), the young man with some kind of hold or claim on the surgeon, and why is he readily introduced to Steven's family--even encouraged to spend time with the kids?
Lanthimos takes his cue from Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis, where Agamemnon is forced to atone for killing the god Artemis' sacred deer. He takes his cue from Greek drama by filming in austere settings (Steven's near spotless house, the gleaming glass white-tile monument--mausoleum?--of a hospital) and using stylized at times hilariously deadpan performances as if the actors wore masks (Steven in the middle of a medical convention: "Our daughter started menstruating last week"--no one bats an eye). He shoots in brightlit sets and sundrenched exteriors, and paradoxically all that lighting feels less than comforting--as if to suggest that there's nowhere to hide or be forever safe; that all will eventually be exposed, secrets above all, and above all secret guilt. All this forms the overarching effect of deliberate overwhelming fate: Steven will get his comeuppance and nothing he can say or do will change that outcome. Lanthimos slyly underlines the conclusion when Martin in response to Steven's hospitality invites the older man to his house and they sit with Martin's mother (Alicia Silverstone in a small startling role) to watch the boy's favorite movie Groundhog Day--about a man who lives a sday over and over again till his awareness of his situation is near-transcendental ("What's that again?" "I'm a god." "You're God." "I'm a god; I'm not the God, I think.")
Lanthimos makes us squirm in our seats in the scenes between Steven and Martin (Is the boy a bastard son? A lover?); his most drawn-out quotidian moments have the nails-on-chalkboard quality of Jack Torrance's interview scene in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. If I mention Kubrick that's possibly because the late filmmaker's spirit seems to linger in the margins of Lanthimos' films: Dogtooth appropriated an image from the earlier picture, and Sacred Deer goes as far as appropriating Kidman, whose more quarrelsome scenes with Farrell echo her scenes with Tom Cruise in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (another film about willful blindness to inevitable fate). Might as well note that the soundtrack, while not featuring music composed for the film, seems to keep wanting to morph into music (particularly Bela Bartok's) used in The Shining.
Arguably Lanthimos' most potent weapon isn't so much horror--though that to put it mildly ain't exactly chopped liver--as it is humor. The comedy helps stiffen the film, give the horror snap: by way of comparison the horror-comedy in Jordan Peele's Get Out (which I do like) seems fairly safe and humdrum in its realism, even when dealing with an issue as sensitive as racism. Once the situation becomes clear (skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven't seen the film) each family member pleads his or her case to Steven as to why they shouldn't be the sacrifice. They crawl on the floor, dragging their lifeless limbs behind them, point out this or that virtue they possess or action they have accomplished ("I cut my hair just as you want me to." "I love you more than anything in the world." "I think I'm gonna wear that black dress that you like."). Deadpan delivery but eyes large and pleading--a more loathsome image of supplication to patriarchal authority I can't think of, at least in recent films.
It's not all sunshine and light though. Steven is offered sex which he rejects, suggesting a virtuous husband; Anna offers sex coldly, knowingly, as a practical transaction. Understand where Anna is coming from--where Steven seems paralyzed with indecision she's driven to find a way out of this mess, plus following the general outlines of the myth Clytemnestra was unfaithful--but why make Steven look relatively better?
Not quite as resonant as Lanthimos' The Lobster, a surprisingly poignant love story; not as economically and elegantly wrought as Dogtooth--his best work in my book, suggesting that nothing in myth or fantasy is stranger than plain unfiltered human perversity--but a potent film all its own.
First published in Businessworld 9.28.18