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The Current Debate: An Auteur Misfires in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”

Yorgos Lanthimos’ follow-up to “The Lobster” struggles under the weight of its influences.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the latest feature from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, is set in a recognizably American city, but otherwise occupies much the same kind of off-kilter reality as Lanthimos’ previous film, last year’s The Lobster. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a successful heart surgeon who returns every night to his stately house, attentive wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), and their two children. During his days at the hospital, he alternately spends time with and deflects a teenaged boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan), to whom he seems to owe some debt, the origin of which is unclear. A. O. Scott continues at The New York Times:
It’s made clear soon enough. Martin, who seems both a little slow and spookily intuitive, turns out to be the evil force who will torment the Murphys. Some years earlier, Steven had performed an operation on the boy’s father, who subsequently died. In lieu of filing a malpractice claim, Martin has chosen a more archaic — and, in the film’s modern setting, a far scarier and more preposterous — form of score settling. He demands that Steven kill Anna or one of their kids. If he doesn’t, the whole family will sicken and die. Martin describes the process in exacting detail, and then it begins.
Even after Martin reveals his intentions to Steven, and both of Steven’s children fall ill, Sacred Deer holds to a tone that has drawn more than one unfavorable comparison to Michael Haneke’s films. I would count myself among viewers for whom depicting plainly disturbing events in an unfunny deadpan doesn’t really work. Anthony Lane concurs at The New Yorker:
What this deadpan tone suggests, over time, is a deadness of the spirit, whether in the domestic arena or in the wider world. If “The Lobster” remains Lanthimos’s most vital work, that’s because it tempers the gloom with a mischievous play of wit. “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” by contrast, is stubbornly hard to enjoy; there are jokes, but they make few dents in the programmatic rigor of the plot. No one but Lanthimos could adhere so loyally to the classical model of the tragic, yet the result treads close to monotony, and even to a kind of sorrowful sadism—on the whole, I’d rather not watch children, numb below the waist, crawling helplessly downstairs or being hauled along by their hair. Strangest of all is the musical topping and tailing of the film: the “Jesus Christus” from Schubert’s “Stabat Mater” in F minor at the beginning, and the mighty opening of Bach’s “St. John Passion” at the end. Hang on, are we supposed to regard Steven as a loving God, giving up his child for the salvation of others? In that case, who the hell is Martin?
As Lane explains earlier in his review, Sacred Deer is loosely based on the myth of Iphigenia, in which Agamemnon offends the god Artemis by killing a deer in a sacred grove. He’s instructed to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to Artemis, and he does (though in some versions the god spares her). One could attempt to map this story onto the film in more than one way, but the details may not matter very much: the key connection seems to be the demand of a terrible sacrifice. As Jessica Kiang writes at The Playlist, Lanthimos is first and foremost out to unsettle:
As many readings as there are, the dissonance between the cerebral and the visceral is an ongoing throughline, as it must be in any film that features someone biting a chunk out of their own arm and spitting it out, saying “It’s a metaphor!” But even as an experiment in the body/mind disconnect, it has a frighteningly caustic morality to it: buried under all that glacial ice there’s a withering portrait of suburban alienation and the surface-level equanimity of privilege. As atomized and insulated as we might think ourselves, the film seems to be saying, our actions have effects, our lives and choices can collide with those of others, and some invisible greater balance can be upset. The uncanniness of “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is simply what happens when this beyond-our-ken tally of cosmic justice is made visible, given form; when it shows up at your door with a bunch of flowers and you invite it in, with all its attendant annihilation.
The problem with this reading is that contemplating the moral bankruptcy of a suburban life of privilege is hardly revelatory, or even particularly interesting in this case. Sacred Deer’s recycling doesn’t stop at themes, either; the execution borrows heavily from Kubrick, per Blake Williams at Filmmaker:
Lanthimos continues doing his thing here - antisocial line readings, pitch black humor, bursts of brutality, a Surrealist flair for the absurd - this time in a forwardly Kubrickian mode. Riffing on The Shining (1980) in both form and motif, Sacred Deer shows the casually supernatural relationship between an unnamed cardiologist (Colin Farrell) and a teenager named Martin (Barry Keoghan) in a very direct fusion of Sophie's-choice and eye-for-an-eye-thriller narratives. Lanthimos's regular DP, Thimios Bakatakis, monitors the action with gliding, symmetrical, high- and wide-angle framing, which creates the sensation that we are watching the world in a mechanized bubble, and that the gaze belongs to the mise en scène rather than any particular subject. This movie pissed a lot of people off when it played, likely because its sadistic scenario never amounts to more than sadism for its own sake; to counter a choice line from late in the film - “It's a metaphor, it's symbolic” - there is nothing metaphorical or symbolic here. It is what it is, present while it's there, gone when it's not, and you either laugh along or curse its existence.
All told, The Killing of a Sacred Deer feels like a step back in the originality and daring of Lanthimos’ filmmaking. But if, walking out of the theater, I was almost ready to swear off viewing his next film, Stephanie Zacharek’s thoughtful review at Time convinced me otherwise:
I love an audacious stylistic experiment, even a failed one, as much as anyone. And the fact that I’m still thinking about these movies, even just a little, more than 24 hours after seeing them is something. But clinical filmmakers with zero warmth are, admittedly, not my thing, the sort of artists that, when pressed and tired, I feebly say I “admire” but really don’t. Both Happy End and The Killing of a Sacred Deer left me feeling that I'd been lectured to, as if the filmmakers had decided with certainty that I didn’t already know what a horrible, vile place the world is, and thus needed to be taken by the hand and shown—but with style. Thanks heaps. That said, we go to the movies for all sorts of reasons, and I will of course continue to see movies by Haneke and Lanthimos and any number of lauded filmmakers I’m not likely to respond to, because you never know. And if you think you do know—you run the risk of being as trapped on the auteurist hamster wheel as they are.
The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.
Good piece, but I think it misses some aspects of what makes this film unusual. It dismisses Sacred Deer for depicting “plainly disturbing events in an unfunny deadpan,” and seems to agree with Lane in preferring The Lobster’s “mischievous play of wit.” But I think many critics were conned by The Lobster, which is a more sadistic film because it weaponizes its own playfulness against its audience. Sacred Deer is less cold by comparison because it acknowledges its identity as a revenge-horror story. The Lobster plays out like this: LANTHIMOS: “Hey! Want a cute, quirky premise?” AUDIENCE: “Yeah!” LANTHIMOS: “How about this. People turn into animals if they don’t fall in love, but — “ AUDIENCE: “Okay!” LANTHIMOS: “But, but — now I’m going to follow this premise and its rules to a very horrific, bitter, and inevitable conclusion. And then I’m going to rub your nose in it. Because you’re complicit. Understand?” AUDIENCE: “…” Sacred Deer is more developed, more mature, and more interesting. Not only is Lanthimos letting the audience in on the joke, he’s using a wonderful shorthand. Here’s a big spoiler, and one of my favorite things about Sacred Deer — we never find out how Steven’s family gets sick. We only are told why. And as the audience, we don’t question it (nor do we question why Steven doesn’t seek help from the police, or why he isn’t convicted of murder at the end of the story). That so many critics decline to wrestle with the film’s many plot holes is, to me, evidence of Lanthimos’ magic. He's pulling a great trick here. The strangest things about this movie don't call attention to themselves. But they're in there, half-buried, and it’s worthwhile to find them.
I totally agree with you. I thought it was a great film. There were actually a lot of great films this year, from the most obscure art films (Lucretia Martel's Zama, Bertrand Bonello's Nocturama) to some atypically experimental blockbusters (Baby Driver, Dunkirk), but it still cracked my top 15. I didn't like The Lobster at all, as I felt it became too obsessed with its own irony to pack the brutality that made 'Dogtooth' so delightful. But 'Sacred Deer,' while respecting the witty and acerbic Lanthimos style, made brutality its reason to exist. Why can't that be interesting in and of itself? 'Sacred Deer' is an artfully crafted exploitation film, that uses shock to jolt the viewer into consciousness. I am reminded of Antonin Artaud here, who has been an unlikely touchstone in cinema in 2017. Darren Aronofsky was referencing Artaud in 'Mother!' But that film fails to a ludicrous extent because Aronofsky was using Artaud's penchant for shock value for such a boring, neo-liberal statement (we know global warming sucks, this movie doesn't help me understand that). Whereas with Lanthimos, the depravity is the point. It's just there. You are forced to witness it. What that brutality does to you on the individual level is what's interesting. How does it make you feel? Although it's obviously made with great sophistication behind it, I loved 'Sacred Deer' for the same reason that I love films like 'Haute Tension,' or the transgressive films of Richard Kern or Nick Zedd, or the exploitation/revenge cinema of early Abel Ferrara (Driller Killer and Ms. 45) and Michael Findlay. Those kinds of films are its precedents far more than anything Michael Haneke has ever done. Haneke is too political. I really think Lanthimos was just trying to focus on a personal dilemma. An impossible situation. A tragedy born of depravity. This was not a film made with worries about critical acclaim. That is something to admire.

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