The Killing Of A Sacred Deer is Yorgos Lanthimos’ new film after Dogtooth and The Lobster and follows the director’s bizarre and uncompromising approach to film. Drawing from Euriphides’ fable, Iphigenia at Aulis, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer is a modern take on ideas of fated tragedy, familial responsibility, human error and the inherent violence of sacrifice. The film is equal parts horrifying and unsettling; I felt as if the film unearthed something and proceeded to violate it mercilessly. It is an assault on the senses. I was certainly hooked, transfixed and terrified. But once the film was over, the ordeal ended for me. Despite the film’s blood-curling themes and clinical execution, it never became more than its metaphor. I felt like Lanthimos was too concerned with creating something unsettling, with chilly characters and a sterile tone, that his story became impersonal. As the film ended, it is hard not to be disconnected and jaded once you see that it indulges in the metaphorical so much that it doesn’t even feel real.
Stylistically speaking, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer achieves a very specific tone. It was meant to be unsettling and creepy. I got unsettling and creepy. Enter the first scene; Open heart surgery, heart beating and surgeon hands shifting the skin surrounding for a better view. Cue orchestral music. With an introduction like that, you know you’re getting yourself into a world of crazy. Then you have Martin, a patient of the protagonist Dr. Murphy, who seems like a cross between Norman Bates and Kevin in We need to talk about Kevin. Equally innocent yet unknowingly sinister, Barry Kogan plays Martin’s ambiguous duality to perfection. It is scary. The things he says carry such foreshadowing that one wonders whether he is simply a messenger of death or the devil himself.
With such a strong and cold presence on screen, you’d figure the other characters would be slightly more normal. And I have no doubt that if the other characters had actually acted like real people dealing with an unreal force, there could have been real tragedy. Instead, Lanthimos’ other characters seem pathological and mentally awry in some shape or form. Dr. Murphy’s speech is so didactic and unreal. His kids seem lifeless and hollow and not very much different from the chief antagonist himself. The only saving grace is Nicole Kidmann who internalizes the tragic circumstances like a real human being and reacts in ways which we can all empathize with.
I don’t entirely dismiss the film. I just think Lanthimos has made a mistake. The stoic and unfeelingly cold nature of his characters was probably his way of trying to portray the humdrum and disconnected reality of a privileged life. And if you see it in that way, then Martin’s arrival is such an ill-fated and tragic disurbance in the sheltered enclave of his characters. In a sense, his style can be justified. But more than justifying style, we have to consider if it’s effective. And it doesn’t take much thought to immediately feel that there’s absolutely no feeling at all. His characters are not realistic. The reactions may show pockets of human weakness and frailty, but are too overwhelmed by a sense of cold disconnect. The film essentially makes it difficult for us to empathize with the ordeal and tragedy that the characters face.
In the end, whilst The Killing Of A Sacred Deer will choke you while you watch it, it will not haunt you once you’re done with it. Although it tries to unearth narratives and truths from Greek Mythology and apply them to the modern context, it remains within itself; A metaphor without a beating heart.