The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) by Yorgos Lanthimos
Review by Andrew Swafford
Yorgos Lanthimos makes dark films, and cinephiles love dark films.
The list of directors acclaimed for presenting provocative, acerbic, and cynical insights into the human psyche stretches far and wide: Stanley Kubrick, Lars Von Trier, Michael Haneke, Gaspar Noé, Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, John Cassavetes, and dozens more. Plenty of these are justifiably detested, to be fair, for their more extreme provocations--but ultimately, the point is that there is an audience for this stuff, to the extent that the phrase “dark and gritty” has become a cliche blockbuster descriptor.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer obviously wants to be appreciated for its boldness. It opens with a punishingly long close-up of a beating heart, its plot involves children slowly weakening until they bleed from the eyes, and it is all presented with a grand sense of scale and omnipotent distance. Each and every sleek and symmetrically-composed frame makes clear that Yorgos Lanthimos wants The Killing of a Sacred Deer to be counted as a masterpiece of human-hating cinema, but I’d argue that it’s ultimately meaningless enough to be worth hating itself. And, tempted though I might be to use this review as an excuse to justifiably rip on “filmbros,” I won’t--partially because that’s a group from whom I could never wholly and in good faith exclude myself, and also because I’ve seen plenty of positive takes on the film by women. So in lieu of lazy essentialism, I’d like to reach for something slightly more nuanced to talk about how/why a film like Sacred Deer exists and what exactly is wrong with embracing it with open arms.
The idea that a challenging film is an interesting film seems, to me, to be a common assumption among movie fans. Not every film community may be into the macabre, but all value some type of difficulty, be it slowness, length, obscurity, or emotional devastation. A movie that is hard to watch is a challenge, and challenges are rewarding. Fun, even. They’re how we prove ourselves.
This feels true on IMDb, where the top 10 highest rated movies likely only includes a film as sedately humanistic as 12 Angry Men because the rating members identify with its title (okay, maybe one swipe at filmbros); it feels true on Letterboxd, where boring blockbusters about serious themes like Blade Runner 2049 have half-pipe shaped bell curves; it feels true on Film Twitter, which voted the great-but-drudgerous Jeanne Dielman as the #2 film of all time; and it feels true on Sight & Sound polls, which has a top 10 that tends towards deep melancholia. We’ve all got our masochistic kinks.
There’s nothing wrong with this. Films that are challenging push us out of our comfort zones, and a dark film made thoughtfully can break our naive misconceptions and force us to see the world in a new way. These are sentiments so widely shared that they've become cliché--which is how the film landscape has been cultivated into fertile ground for a filmmaker like Yorgos Lanthimos to flourish.
Yorgos Lanthimos has, historically, proven himself to be particularly skilled at breaking naive conceptions. As I’ve outlined in the past, his previous two films Dogtooth and The Lobster are both bleak and violent films that succeed on two counts: (1) they take place in alternate universes constructed by Lanthimos--they are comic simulacra of human existence in which people live without passion, speak without inflection, and behave much more cruelly than audiences might tolerate otherwise; (2) they are very pointed in their satire, with Dogtooth drawing parallels between strict child-rearing and full-fledged brainwashing, and The Lobster critiquing the algorithm-like way humans seek love in the 21st century. With these two crucial elements in place, the more harrowing elements of Lanthimos’s stories (child abuse, incest, animal cruelty, self-mutilation) are given logic, purpose, and even levity. These dark worlds mirror our own, shining a light on forms of brutality that are taken for granted as normal societal convention.
In Killing of a Sacred Deer, both scaffolds have broken. The film takes place in upper-class American suburbia and is centered around a surgeon (Colin Farrell), his wife (Nicole Kidman), and their children--as well as a young acquaintance (Barry Keoghan) who presents a prophecy that threatens to doom the entire family unless one is sacrificed. Just in synopsis, it is clear that Lanthimos has made his job (justifying his film’s storytelling quirks and inevitable sadism) much more difficult. Rather than being set in a dystopian vision of the future or a hermetically sealed bubble, Sacred Deer takes place in his audience’s own backyard. This isn’t a dark mirror of us; this is supposed to be us. Except it isn’t.
The film’s incongruous relationship to reality is most immediately noticeable in the dialogue. Just like in Dogtooth and The Lobster, characters in Killing of a Sacred Deer consistently speak to each other with a awkward severity that carries no inflection, no recognizable rhythm, and no social contract of appropriateness. Early in the film, the sinister youth played by Barry Keoghan has a conversation with Farrell’s children about armpit and chest hair that comes out of nowhere, for example, culminating in the boy lifting his shirt to have his evaluated. Later in the film, Farrell has a conversation with his son in which he tells a story about jerking off his own father as a child--and all in breathless monotone meant to imply a sense of utter normalcy.
Either exchange might have a decent chance of working in a less grounded Lanthimos film, but no such luck exists here. Look: I thought Farrell’s deadpan vocal delivery in The Lobster was so perfect that I championed him for every Best Actor award. But here, he (along with the rest of the cast) utilizes the same droll tone throughout and there’s simply no sense of dramatic plausibility. This damages Sacred Deer on a fundamental level--for as much as I’ve heard that the film stays true to Lanthimos’s style, I’ve heard shockingly little about how nonfunctional that style is in a more realistic context.
Here’s how the film could redeem itself, even building off the faulty foundation of its incompatible style and setting: it could say anything at all about the nature of suburbia or domesticity. It does not. One might think, especially with Nicole Kidman as a supporting actor, that the film might dabble in a Stepford Wives-esque skewering of the American nuclear family--lord knows Lanthimos can dehumanize his performers enough to make that schtick feel meaningfully robotic. (But criminally, Lanthimos gives Kidman precious little material to work with outside debasing herself sexually twice--a misstep worthy of a 1,000+ word essay all its own.) Instead, Lanthimos is content simply to put his unbelievable and unsympathetic characters in a pot of hot water and watch them boil.
As stated, the film centers around a prophecy. The title implies a connection to Greek mythology (Iphigenia), but the substance of the story matters less than its sense of doom and inevitability. After spinning its wheels with uncomfortable dialogue scene after uncomfortable dialogue scene, the film’s antagonist delivers a prophecy at around the halfway point that Farrell’s entire family will suffer a series of debilitating injuries until their eventual death--unless, crucially, Farrell sacrifices one of them. Again, one senses opportunity for satire: what evil is hidden in the lie that parents “love all their children equally?” One scene between Farrell and a school principal hints at this subtext in the film, but it leaves as soon as it comes. After the ominous element of prophecy is introduced, the film dedicates itself to plodding toward its inevitable catastrophe with great portent, offering along the way few surprises but plenty of pain.
Violence in Lanthimos movies feels different to “normal” movie violence. Whereas a slasher or home invasion film might escalate their audience’s blood pressure with increasingly elaborate acts of violence (the phrase “creative kills” comes to mind), Lanthimos goes for smaller, more intimate scratches up and down his viewer’s nerves. The breaking of skin is recognizable yet vicious, with a palpable sense of pain throughout the film. My Cinematary co-host Nathan Smith described Lanthimos’s style in his takedown of The Lobster as “like someone playing an out-of-tune cello with razor blades.” The scene from Sacred Deer that most demonstrates this to me is a strangely photographed one: from dozens of feet up, a camera looks directly downwards at Kidman and her son getting off of an escalator, only to see the son’s legs give out from under him, face colliding with flooring. We’re too physically distant to have an emotional connection with the boy at this moment, but we sure hear the scraping of skull against stone. It’s small, but it hurts, and the framing matters. The fact that this is adapted myth seems apt in one way: it’s clear these characters are all ants under the magnifying glass of Lanthimos’s cruel bullying god.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a joyless and abrasive film, with a sense of nihilistic sadism. That statement of truth, I imagine, will be enough to convince many to watch it. In the past few years, I have been increasingly unsettled by the way in which descriptors like “brutal,” “disturbing,” or “fucked up” are unequivocal selling points for some cinephiles. I hereby excommunicate myself from their ranks. As a lover of great horror movies in general and certain cinematic provocations specifically (Funny Games, Antichrist, Martyrs), I both refute accusations that these works are empty revelry in sadistic pleasure (towards women and people of color especially) as well as praises of the same work that finds value in violence for violence’s sake. A film can be dark and valuable, but it is never valuable because it is dark. I truly feel that belief in the contrary is destructive not only for the future of quality horror cinema, but also any society that holds empathy as a norm worth holding onto.
Part of me feels like I’m wasting the valuable time of both myself and my readers for dedicating 1,500+ words to a thesis that should be such common sense. But why do I not feel like we get it? Why do we keep thanking artists for pummelling us with empty pain and misery?