This year has seen something of a renaissance in the horror genre, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer may be the most impressive of the lot. There aren’t any jump scares, there aren’t any monsters — at least, not overtly so — but courtesy of director Yorgos Lanthimos, there are terrors galore.
There’s no confusing a film by Lanthimos for someone else’s handiwork. His latest movie has all of his trademarks: long chunks of dialogue delivered in inexorable monotone, anemic demeanors that burst into startling violence, and a slow building of tension that, once the dam breaks, provides the kind of release comparable to the bitter taste in your mouth after you throw up. But that’s not a complaint. The visceral reaction that Lanthimos is capable of provoking is a thrill, and the performances he gets out of Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, and Barry Keoghan are stunning.
It’s not entirely clear what’s happening in The Killing of a Sacred Deer until almost halfway through the movie. Slowly, we’re introduced to Steven Murphy (Farrell), his wife Anna (Kidman), and their two kids, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). Orbiting the family is Martin (Keoghan). He’s close with Steven for reasons that aren’t quite clear — Steven keeps fudging the explanation to his colleagues and family — but there’s obviously something amiss. While there aren’t really any supernatural forces at play, the story still feels like a fairytale gone awry — or perhaps more accurately, a ghost story. As with any haunting, the more Steven tries to resist the malevolent force descending on his house, the more inescapable it becomes. And, as he learns, exorcism requires a sacrifice.
This is Farrell’s second time working with Lanthimos after The Lobster in 2015, and he’s only become more attuned to the director’s wavelength since then. Lanthimos requires a certain cadence from his actors in the same way that Quentin Tarantino does, it’s just that instead of motor mouths and wisecrackers, he needs robots — the kind that have become so aware of their circumstances that they start to dream of becoming real. In accordance, the dialogue that he writes is mechanical and, for the most part, emotionless, but that bluntness can't be taken for a lack of heart. Farrell is an expert at walking this line, as Steven’s apparent calm is actually quite brittle. The same goes for Kidman’s performance as Anna, whose kindly façade slips away to reveal ruthlessness when she learns that her family is in danger.
But it’s Keoghan who steals the show. If his turn in Dunkirk earlier this year wasn't enough to vault him into leading man status, The Killing of a Sacred Deer should do the job. As the metaphorical ghost, he easily holds his own against Farrell and Kidman, and runs circles with dialogue that’s hilarious and horrifying in turns. Instead of adapting to his director’s idiosyncrasies, he seems to have been born into them; his delivery isn’t any more or less affected than that of his peers, but he pulls it off so well it seems real. Accordingly, it’s Martin who gets what is easily the film’s most shocking sequence — The Killing of a Sacred Deer’s answer to the tooth scene in Dogtooth.
Martin’s performance is also unusually warm in a movie that capitalizes on a cold sort of style. Lanthimos has been accused of being heartless in how he treats his characters, but this movie makes it ever clearer that that’s not quite true. Even the story itself seems to get at that point: it moves from the hospital (the most clinical setting there is) to the home (where the heart is). There are beats scattered throughout the film — the sweet loneliness of Alicia Silverstone’s performance as Martin’s mother, for instance — that point to care rather than carelessness, too. There’s also no horror in a horror movie where the director doesn’t care about the characters. If there’s no emotional investment, they’re just cannon fodder, and Lanthimos isn’t so crude.
He is, however, completely unafraid of wresting any semblance of control from his audience. As Steven’s family starts to exhibit strange symptoms, there’s no explanation for what they’ve been afflicted with, or how they’ve been infected. There’s no explanation, either, as to how they’ll be made free if they comply with what’s being demanded of them. The how of this situation isn’t important. It’s the why.
On that note, while the film is best seen with as little spoiled as possible, it’s worth noting the origin of the film’s title. It’s derived from a Greek myth in which Agamemnon kills a deer in a grove sacred to the goddess Artemis just as the Greeks are preparing to go to war. Angered by his trespass, Artemis interferes with the winds, making it impossible for his fleet to sail. If he wants to go to war, he must sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. At first, Agamemnon refuses; he loves his daughter too much. But as pressure mounts from the other commanders, the story starts to change. His ultimate choice is telling as to his own character, and the same goes for Steven, whose desperation steers the film into gothic tragedy as well as the bleakest possible slapstick. We already know that this is a no-win scenario; it’s just a question of how craven and monstrous our supposed heroes will turn to try to survive it.
There’s so much to look at and parse through in The Killing of a Sacred Deer that it’s easy to forget how scary it is, but make no mistake: it’s the best horror movie of the year. From its very first shot — an exposed heart beating as surgeons’ hands flutter around it — it makes it clear that the monsters are within and without. Our inner workings are terribly fragile; all you need to do is peel back a layer of skin (or the mannered affectations of Lanthimos’ characters) and you’ll see the bloody bits inside. We’re just as capable of tearing that all apart, too.