Leave it to a Greek to deliver the perfect update to the Greek tragedy. Director Yorgos Lanthimos has been delivering us dark and twisted fables for years, starting with 2010’s breakthrough nightmare Dogtooth and continuing through last year’s more lighthearted (in a way) The Lobster. However, if you truly want to understand the way Lanthimos thinks, in all his comedic, terrifying wisdom, then you probably don’t need to look further than The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a twisted, psychologically tense thriller about existentialism and the meeting of control vs. chaos. And while the third act never comes together the way the film needs to, the first two acts are so ingenious it makes the film stand out as a triumph nonetheless.
Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is the human ideal. He’s a highly successful cardiologist, he’s got a loving family, including wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and son Bob (Sunny Suljic), and things prescribe to his vision of order and discipline. His one peculiarity is his friendship with sixteen-year-old Martin (Barry Keoghan), the son of a former patient. Steven meets with Martin with great frequency, serving as an adoptive father to the young lad, and introducing him to his family, where the boy wins over Anna’s approval and Kim’s affections. However, as strange events start occurring, and Bob and Kim begin to suffer from paralysis, Steven soon realizes that things are out of his control.
What makes Lanthimos a fascinating director is the fact that, in many ways, he is not that different from Wes Anderson. Both have incredibly dry senses of humor delivered in stunted, almost wooden manners, and both create über-perfect settings that feel overly-stylized in the best possible way. However, if Anderson grew up watching the whimsical films of Hal Ashby, then Lanthimos grew up watching the nihilistically cold films of Ingmar Bergman and Michael Haneke. Lanthimos uses his filmmaking here as a metaphor for existentialism, with each aspect tying into one of the greater ideas of the philosophy. This is a highly intelligent thriller, exploring things like choice, the randomness of fate, and the impossibility of control in such a cruel and uncaring world. Steven has an innate desire to control things, represented in his performance as a surgeon (the opening shot is of a very technical and very disturbing close-up on a human heart during surgery) and his wish that Bob would cut his hair and follow the rules. This puts him at great odds with Martin, the human embodiment of the cruel randomness of the universe. Martin’s philosophies are almost as f*cked up as the universe’s, and when the plot is laid bare for the audience at the forty-minute mark, revealing all of its twists, the film becomes a ticking time bomb of tension.
Furthermore, Lanthimos builds tension through his directorial choices. The stunted delivery of his actors both builds tension in its uncanny nature, as well as represents the existential concept of absurdity. Existentialists believe that due to the randomness of the universe, nothing is unique, or special, or particularly noteworthy. Therefore, the characters deliver their lines in the most mundane and humorless ways possible, thus creating humorous moments. Early in the film, when asked about his children, Steven coldly and matter-of-factly reports that “Our daughter just had her first menstrual cycle last week.” It’s such a weird line to hear uttered in a formal setting, and with such clinical execution, it makes for beautiful comedy. The film really alternates between comedy and tension beautifully throughout, never letting either get the upper hand, and really coming to a head when the two merge to reflect the absurdity of chance and fate in the climax. I won’t spoil it for you here, but the climax of this film is one of the most disturbingly humorous moments I’ve ever seen on film, having me on the edge of my seat while simultaneously making me giggle like a schoolgirl. Meanwhile, the sets are the physical embodiment of existential angst and uncanniness. The hallways are too white, the frames are too centered, and everything feels just too sterile. Everything feels fake and controlled in Steven’s perfect world, and it fills the audience with dread that something’s going to come along to ruin everything (or perhaps bring it back to reality, depending on how you read it).
Nevertheless, while this is film does serve as the perfect representation of existentialism, it is not without its faults. While the first act of the film successfully builds our tension in a slow, methodical manner, and the second act expertly jacks up the horror to eleven, the third act realizes that it has nowhere else to go, and it has to either end or just meander on into a fizzle. Lanthimos does his best to course correct with a shocking climax and a solidly executed final scene, but it’s abundantly clear for the final forty minutes that Lanthimos has lost control of his film and is flailing in his attempt to get back in the lifeboat. It didn’t quite hinder my appreciation of his film, but it does make me hold back in offering up my highest praises. Likewise, the film has a nasty habit of leaving too much unexplained. I don’t need everything explained to me in a film – sometimes things just happen in this world, and we never really do get a solid answer. However, in this film, it just raises too many questions that didn’t need to be raised in the first place. For example, I can’t tell if there was some scientific reason the kids lose their ability to walk, if the film has a sci-fi twist that I just missed, or if there’s a third reason I’m not aware of. It’s not something that can ruin the movie for me, but it does make me wonder if Lanthimos just had an idea and shot it immediately before he fully fleshed it out.
Nevertheless, there’s still a lot to like about the film, not least of which is the cast. Obviously, Barry Keoghan is the find here, wowing the audience with his cold, unfeeling performance that feels at odds with his warmer role in this year’s Dunkirk. He’s the perfect opposite for Farrell, and he is the perfect embodiment of chaos. I also thought Raffey Cassidy was solid as Kim, and is equally worthy of praise. Farrell and Kidman are both solid in their roles as parents, but I don’t know if I have anything worth writing home about for either of them (although I do hope Farrell just alternates between Lanthimos and Martin McDonagh films for all eternity). If there is an actor I want to give particular praise to, it’s character actor Bill Camp, who plays Matthew, Steven’s anesthesiologist friend. Camp knows how to take even the smallest roles and turn them into memorable three-dimensional characters, and I absolutely love him in everything. And finally, Alicia Silverstone turns up in a small role as Martin’s mother, and while she’s great, I can’t help but feel anything while watching her but, “Wait, is that Alicia Silverstone? What’s she doing here?” Still, she’s good, and I’m glad she’s getting work where she can (and in films by great directors).
Look, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a cold, unfeeling film. It’s the existential philosophy in all its glory and all its horrors, laid bare for the audience through a tense, terrifying psychological horror. It’s a nasty little film, in all the right ways. Honestly, the best comparison I can think of, both from my reaction as well as the audience’s, is this year’s mother! Both are nasty, intelligent little films built from perfect technological feats and climaxing in the most disturbing way possible. However, I think this one’s much more intelligent than its contemporary, and a hell of a lot more enjoyable. It’s not quite Lanthimos’ best film, and it’s certainly not his most accessible, but it’s still a sharper, smarter turn than most directors are willing to give us, and it’s worth seeing for it.