The Killing of a Sacred Deer: Horror à la Grecque

Image courtesy of A24.

*** ½ (out of 4)

Given how frequently the word is tossed out, it might be lazy of me to say that Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer is original. But when it comes to someone like Lanthimos, there’s simply no adjective that better captures his style. This, after all, is the director who had teenagers stabbing cats and calling salt shakers telephones in the over-parenting dramedy Dogtooth – and who recently had bachelors turning into horses and dogs in the dystopian romance The Lobster. Now, in Killing, Lanthimos brings his wacky blend of absurdism and satire to the horror genre, telling the story of a surgeon named Steven (Colin Farrell) who strikes up an eerily close relationship with the son (Barry Keoghan) of a former patient.

From here, it’d be futile to try to describe Killing’s plot in more detail; as with Dogtooth and The Lobster, you have to see it to fully appreciate its surreal nonsensicalness. What can be said, however, is that Killing undoubtedly represents a step up in Lanthimos’ already-exceptional oeuvre. And to understand why, it helps to take a look back at what he previously did in Dogtooth. That breakout hit largely devoted itself to an oft-hilarious portrayal of its overly sheltered teenage characters. But lurking in its background throughout was Christos Stergioglou’s stern, dictatorial father character. And in him, Lanthimos hinted that the story’s comedy was in fact predicated on something quite dark: a man who, in spite of his claims to the contrary, seemed more interested in maintaining power than attending to his family’s well-being.

In a sense, you could say that Killing builds on the seeds Dogtooth initially planted. The mysteries underlying the former’s storyline play on a theme personified in Stergioglou’s character: people’s tendency to don facades that conceal their far cruder instincts. And in making Steven Killing’s protagonist, Lanthimos allows his erstwhile-secondary sketch of Stergioglou’s creeping sadism to take center stage: he strips it down and ably shows that such tyrannical urges stem from little more than a Beauvoir-esque unwillingness to face down mortality. Killing eventually takes all these ideas in directions that are nothing if not unpleasant; TIME’s Stephanie Zacharek wasn’t being unreasonable when she deemed it a bit “clinical.” But the film ultimately still succeeds in providing a mesmerizing, frightening examination of our fundamental need to cling to illusions about our importance – an examination that, in eschewing Dogtooth and The Lobster’s placating comedy, compels you to undergo the very same agony its characters suffer.

Image courtesy of A24.

Even on a purely stylistic level, moreover, Killing easily stands out over Lanthimos’ earlier work. Yes, he still makes his characters say tactless things in quasi-robotic tones, as though to highlight the manner in which etiquette impedes honest, meaningful communication. But it’s worth noting that he makes all this emotionless back-and-forth serve a new purpose in Killing. Dogtooth’s dialogue delivery highlighted its characters’ breathtaking naiveté, and The Lobster’s backhandedly underlined its characters’ desperation vis-à-vis their society’s ludicrously restrictive mores. In Killing, on the other hand, the monotonous dialogue delivery reflects the characters’ desire to preserve an air of dignity – even as their baser compulsions continually find ways to insinuate themselves into everything said.

Other aspects of the film only provide further testaments to Lanthimos’ remarkable creativity. His reliance on lens distortion and disquietingly (but aptly) unconventional camera angles – get ready for tons of disorienting high- and low-angle shots – showcase his willingness to experiment beyond the austere, Haneke-esque shooting style he used to such great effect back in Dogtooth. In his smooth, deceptively calm tracking shots, moreover, he gently recalls and subverts Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, a film that used such shots to portray repressed desire in a more hypnotic, alluring light. And most importantly, Lanthimos (unlike Darren Aronofsky) knows not to let all his stylistic aptitude get in the way of his story. Instead of hitting you over the head with weighty, “This is art!!!” displays of technique, he expertly harnesses these various stylistic elements to do what the best horror films do: gradually, organically wrap you in an atmosphere of unshakeable unease.

The one thing about Killing you might find disappointing is its middle act. There, the typically-aloof Lanthimos allows himself to get caught up in the kind of emotional melodrama you’d expect to see in your average B-horror movie. Yet this deficiency is easily compensated for by everything that comes before and after it – not just the aspects of the movie mentioned above, but also Farrell, Keoghan, and Nicole Kidman, who all give impressively bracing performances. In any case, Killing, flaws and all, still beats its better-publicized horror counterparts (Happy Death Day, The Snowman, Jigsaw) by miles. And at the end of the day, when a guy is as original as Lanthimos, you really can’t fault him if he occasionally feels the need to fall back on banality. He’s just too brilliant either way.

Image courtesy of A24.

***

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman

Running Time: 121 minutes

MPAA Rating: R, “for disturbing violent and sexual content, some graphic nudity, and language.”

Produced by: Yorgos Lanthimos, Ed Guiney

Written by: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou

Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos