Art reflects the period in which it is created, and maybe that’s why the awards race is full of extremely dark comedies. From Get Out to The Square, angry, amusing and bleak visions are coming to claim their Oscars. In spite of its A-list cast and crew, one film feels a bit too strange to join the awards conversation, yet it manages to be one of the year’s most uniquely devastating works. Part body horror, part social satire, all spine-chilling dread, singular auteur Yorgos Lanthimos brings his vision to America for The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
To explain the plot’s full introduction would ruin some of the film’s surprises; those who haven’t seen it and want the pure experience are forewarned. Colin Farrell teams up with Lanthimos for a second round post-Lobster, this time playing a wealthy surgeon who mentors young, impoverished Martin (Barry Keoghan) out of a sense of guilt. When Martin meets his family, including a particularly nuanced Nicole Kidman, they find themselves cursed. As occurrences grow weirder and deadlier, the family must face a horrific choice or fall victim to something beyond their control.
Sacred Deer polarizes to fascinating extremes. Viewers who hadn’t seen Dogtooth or The Lobster prior to this film may not have been prepared for Lanthimos’ distinct style, the affected vacancy and stillness. The actors display little to no emotion, and the camera moves in tiny increments, while the color scheme adheres strictly to beige, blue, and white. Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman pull off the deadpan intonations perfectly, yet the true stars are Keoghan and Raffy Cassidy as wayward teenage youth, full of misplaced rage and distant eeriness. Lanthimos commands their world with precise craftsmanship, resulting in a crisp aesthetic underscored by unsettling rumbles of bass and strings. All of this congeals into an atmosphere of fragility and natural unease, which escalates into pure dread by the end.
While it features little of the blood and spectacle of a studio horror film, Sacred Deer frightens in a more unconscious manner. It introduces a nightmare concept and milks it for every drop of morbid, deeply uncomfortable dread. From the first scenes, Lanthimos tells the viewer that this world is far from normal, as Kidman mimics an unconscious patient for Farrell’s delight, or Keoghan seduces Cassidy with unreadable intent. The strangeness only escalates from there, until it reaches a point of either confusion or terror, depending on the viewer. The film’s anxiety feels closely tied to our country’s current state—the privileged paranoia that an outsider will take your safety from you, leaving you at the mercy of senseless, violent nature.
The story’s outlook is bleak, in spite of (even because of) the humor. There is no clear cause for this family’s strife, just a horrible ultimatum that they must resolve amongst themselves. It appears to suggest that privileged society, no matter how well-intentioned, cannot cope when faced with their own tragedies. When these elements infiltrate American suburbia—a space that is supposed to be sterile and safe—chaos ensues; what else would happen? In this way, Lanthimos’s film echoes the social absurdity of Kafka—when presented with impossible obstacles, his characters find themselves unable to hurdle them, because they simply don’t make sense.
When a film’s style and story both work toward this kind of nihilism, it’s inevitable that it will lose some viewers along the way, but for those who stick with it, the effect is profound. By tapping into a modern paranoia through mythically obscure terror, Lanthimos and his phenomenal cast create a horror film that truly feels at home in today’s America. Its unusual way of frightening viewers will leave a lingering infection, but in this manner, it forces one to acknowledge their own privilege and wonder if, in this situation, they would truly be able to do better.
Movie Score: 4.5/5