Jim Hilton explores the complexity of psycho-horror film The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Anyone with a touch of tomophobia (fear of surgery) might want to steel themselves for the first few moments of The Killing of a Sacred Deer. SPOILER ALERT, it’s a beating heart(!), laid bare on the operating table while a surgeon’s instruments tinker round its fleshy margins. It’s super gross, but also weirdly beautiful; it initiates a recurring counterpoint between intimate human matter, and the wide, otherworldly spaces of American private healthcare. As the psychological horror unfolds, and a shiny family of four begin to collapse in unexplained paralysis, we see the white stallions of 21st century medicine baulk and fail: what good is an MRI scan at rooting out a curse!? Loosely in the tradition of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999), The Killing of a Sacred Deer offers a violent deconstruction of the nuclear family myth, estranging inherited assumptions and familiar tropes. It’s an odd, discomforting film that I wouldn’t entirely recommend, except for its wonderfully sinister performances, and its occasional ability—without resorting to jump-scares or gruesomeness—to be genuinely shocking.
Colin Farrell plays Steven Murphy, a Cincinnati cardiologist who seems to have it all: a beautiful wife, two angelic kids, a dog, all packaged neatly in a palatial manse in the suburbs. He’s the kind of surgeon who delivers key-note speeches at big medical galas. Okay, he’s teetotal, and he has some pretty strange tastes in the bedroom–but notwithstanding any quirks, he’s just about the big, hairy pinnacle of middle-American class aspirations. There’s just one thing: his mysterious friendship with 16-year-old Martin (Barry Keoghan, who you’ll recognise from Dunkirk)—what is it? They meet together in diners and go for walks by the Ohio river; Steven buys him a watch. Are they lovers? Are they signed onto some kind of big-brother mentoring scheme? What’s the deal? As the deal becomes clear, Martin will become a deeply malevolent force, threatening Steven’s little family idyll with full-on destruction.
The neutered tone of dialogue and line-delivery will sound recognisable to anyone who caught director Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous feature, The Lobster (2015). Everything’s a bit off. Statements are frank and concise, and spoken largely without emotion. Granted, there’s an element of novelty to this directive, but the actors manage it impressively; performances burn with a subterranean intensity and eyes do a good deal of the work. Nicole Kidman is superb as Anna Murphy, a trophy-wife—clearly superior to her husband in natural ability—who is, by turns, submissive and ruthlessly effective. Farrell also nails it as the patriarch-at-sea, suffocating in the fallout of his actions—his docility every now and again bursting into tempestuous anger. Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic do great jobs as the two children, but it is Barry Keoghan as Martin who really stays in your mind afterwards. With his vacant, slightly a-squint look, his constant lip-biting and soft enquiring voice, he’s an antagonist unlike any I’ve seen recently.
Downtown Cincinnati looks windy and serene. The hospital is all sanitised light and glass, and markedly less populated than those of our favourite network medical dramas, there’s no running with flapping scrubs and stethoscopes, no highly-significant heart-rate monitors. The main medical business we actually see is board-meetings and tests—all procedure and no action. We follow characters down corridors with the inevitable tracking shots, but the camera will usually keep us at a strange remove: we’re either elevated, like a hovering drone, or down at dog-height, looking up. Even in the well-worn territory of American suburbia, we become disorientated. Standard motifs feel suddenly uncanny—as if they’ve been inserted at random. Martin, hardly your typical bad-boy, rides a motorbike, for example. It’s given zero narrative import, but neither is it glamourized in any way; there are no wild, open-road sequences; it’s just there. The children meanwhile are forever being told to “walk the dog” (no name is supplied), as if a button were being pressed somewhere in the script, to the effect: INSERT TYPICAL CHORE HERE.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is concerned with estrangement before all else. It definitely makes everything very strange. Whether this works for you or not might well depend on how you interpret what it’s asking you to step back and see; I haven’t tried to interpret this here, and wouldn’t quite know how to start. For me, a bit of strangeness feels refreshing—not that we should necessarily value oddness for its own sake, but with films for some reason being so wedded to naturalism at the current moment, a bit of deviation can suddenly feel like genius. I don’t really think this film is genius, but it’s a damn creepy psycho-horror with some excellent acting and an ear-busting, spine-chilling soundtrack. It raises serious questions about parenthood, guilt, illness, and class, without being swamped by them, and in its own weird, kind of horrible way, it’s quite entertaining. I wouldn’t go again, but I would still probably go.