“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is a film worth the two hours of discomfort and anxiety it deliberately induces.
As different as “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is from Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous film, “The Lobster,” the director’s ability to utilize the audience’s discomfort for laughs proves equally useful in his new horror film.
Lanthimos’ film is loosely based on the Greek myth of Iphigenia. Before the Trojan War, King Agamemnon accidentally angers the goddess Artemis by killing one of her deers. In order to appease Artemis, Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to her.
Like Agamemnon, surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is forced to kill one of his family members in order to provide safety for the rest.
There are variations of the myth — some in which Iphigenia is sacrificed, some in which she becomes a priestess of Artemis. “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” exists in that gray space of unsure endings.
Where “The Lobster” existed in an allegorical parallel universe, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is grounded in the real world — focused around Steven, his wife (Nicole Kidman) and his children — but is guided by a surreal dream-logic. Not everything is explicitly explained.
Lanthimos is able to get his viewers anxiously invested in his story without actually explaining any of it.
The only exposition in the film is a one- or two-minute monologue in the middle of the film, hastily and eerily spoken by Martin (Barry Keoghan), the eventual blank- and baby-faced antagonist to Steven. So, when Martin and Steven go to the hospital cafeteria, listen up — if you miss those two minutes, the rest of the film will be a relentless game of catch-up.
Some critics have compared “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” with Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” or “Eyes Wide Shut.” While there are many tonal similarities between Lanthimos’ film and those of Kubrick, the former offers a quiet humor that isn’t there in the latter.
The characters in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” speak their lines with a cold, monotonous delivery. This could be likened to the haunting dialogue of Jack (Jack Nicholson) from “The Shining,” but with a hint of the whimsical deliveries of the characters in a Wes Anderson film.
The same goofy disaffect Steven has while rambling on about watches and watchbands becomes chilling when he, with no tonal change, repeatedly drops his young son, Bob (Sunny Suljic), in order to get him to walk after he claims to have lost control of his limbs. And as chilling as it is to see a father repeatedly drop his child onto the floor, it becomes darkly humorous to see Bob fall over and over again with no reaction from father or son.
One can only take so many sounds of limbs squeaking on a hospital floor without quietly giggling.
The effect the characters’ deliveries have on the audience is that of pure discomfort. It’s easier to relate to the quiet-but-frenetic ceiling fans than it is to the cold, uncomfortable characters.
The camera angles are eerily unsatisfying. Many shots in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” show you what you don’t need or want to see. Two characters conversing only occupy a small portion of the screen, tucked away in the corner, with a looming, disinterested background of the city or a blue-gray sky behind them, deliberately obscuring the details of the story.
“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is emotionally draining — tactfully and sadistically so. “The Lobster” ends on a suspenseful moment with no real catharsis except the credit sequence. “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” builds up this cathartic moment over two quiet hours (with little to laugh at but children falling on hard floors) and then gives a meaningless ending. Not a bad ending or a non-ending — an abysmally, meaningless one.
As terrible as this film might make one feel, it is excellently done, slowly building up to a disturbingly quiet dread. It would be best to go see the film with company. The conversation after the film would be the closest to catharsis you’ll get.