FEATURING: , Barry Keoghan,
PLOT: A cardiologist’s odd relationship with a teenage boy reveals a secret about his past, and will lead him to a dilemma in the future.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Two-time Certified Weird director His first official stab at a horror movie is every bit as disturbing as you might hope—which is to say, every bit as disturbing as his comedies and dramas.
COMMENTS: The Killing of a Sacred Deer flips the script of The Lobster. That was a comedy with terrifying moments, while Deer is an unapologetic horror movie with a few funny bits (most of which come from blasé or inappropriate conversations about weighty or grotesque subjects). As is always the case with Lanthimos, what you notice first is the anti-acting acting style: the characters barely register emotions, and when they do express, say, marital tenderness, it’s strained, like they’re pod people trying to fake it to fool the humans. That’s the case here, where Steven, Colin Farrel’s cardiac surgeon, trudges through relationships with both Martin, a pleasant but mysterious teen boy, and his own family with the usual Lanthimos-imposed rigidity. This lack of humanity magnifies the mundanity of the family’s suburban existence. The drama is accented by heavy, obtrusive bursts of dissonant classical music (e.g., cue a Ligeti chord at the conclusion of mother/daughter conversation re: smartphones) to give it that ominous horror film feel. It sounds forced, but it’s effective; combined with the awkward interpersonal relations, the technique creates a real sense of dread that rises for nearly an hour before the first major revelation.
Despite the initially repressed thesping, an interesting thing happens in Deer. Delving into horror forces the director to allow his actors to reveal genuine feelings, however briefly. You can’t remain restrained and unreactive when faced with immediately horrific situations like mental or physical torture, however absurd the premise from which they flow might be. Farrell (and Kidman, but mainly Farrel) gets to play furious, frightened and bereaved here. The further into the plot they venture, the more emotions are unleashed, an unexpected progression that feels natural and satisfying.
Although this isn’t a thriller that depends on a twist, I still don’t want to give away too much of the plot. I think it will be more rewarding if the viewer is in the same position as Steven when Martin quickly and casually recites the rules of the game at a cafeteria. I will say that the tale involves a moral dilemma, of sorts. I also feel obliged to say that I found the final resolution unsatisfying, for reasons I can’t discuss in detail without crossing the border into spoiler territory. Let’s simply say that the way Lanthimos resolves the situation, though perhaps the only reasonable solution, allows the protagonist to avoid responsibility for his choices—a surprising cop-out in a movie otherwise so uncompromising, both formally and in its cruelty.
Before sailing to Troy, Agamemnon, the high king of the Greeks, unknowingly killed a deer that was sacred to the goddess Artemis. Angry, the goddess calmed the winds so that the fleets could not sail. To atone for his sin, she demanded that Agamemnon sacrifice his own beloved daughter, Iphigenia. Even though Steven’s daughter Kim got an “A” on her presentation on Iphigenia in class, it’s not necessary to know how that story ends (versions of the myth differ, anyway) to understand Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer. But the title is intentional foreshadowing that lets you know you’re in for something approaching classical tragedy—and if you know your ancient Greeks, you know they liked their tragedy gruesome. So do modern Greeks. They also like it a little weird.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…as things spun out of control, getting ever stranger, I started to wonder if the director had merely written himself into a corner and was doubling down on weirdness to get himself out. And yet the film never quite loses its mythic drive. You walk out feeling like you’ve truly had an experience.”–Bilge Ebiri, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)