Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos. Starring Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan, Nicole Kidman
Spoilers below, for those who want to be surprised.
There are two versions of the same story which don’t appear to us until late in the picture. They are fairly similar, as both acknowledge that the surgeon had had some alcohol in his system when he operated on a patient, and both acknowledge the death of the patient on the table because of an unforeseen complication. The two narrators, the surgeon and the anesthesiologist, both place the blame elsewhere. The surgeon, smoking a cigarette and sitting on the sidewalk outside the hospital at night, says that a surgeon can’t kill a patient: only an anesthesiologist can do that. The anesthesiologist, getting a handjob from the surgeon’s wife in a sunlit parking garage, says that an anesthesiologist can’t kill a patient: only a surgeon can do that. (My brain, which is hard-wired to connect everything to The Crucible at any cost, is reminded of Hale’s admonition to Tituba: “The Devil can never overcome a minister. You know that, do you not?”) They say it without any special emphasis, like it’s an interesting medical factoid along the lines of how many square feet someone’s skin could cover. The lesson? Scientism is a blight and objectivity is a crock. It is no wonder that the most interesting thing that the protagonist of the film can come up with to say about his teenage daughter is not that she is exploring an interest in music or seeing friends or getting rides home on motorcycles, but that she is just menstruating. It is the kind of report that one makes when science is one’s god, and emotion was dropped off in a dumpster many years ago.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer inspires strong reactions in its viewers. I’ll admit that the movie is sort of bleak. What I think most disturbs people about Sacred Deer is that there is no way out, no cure, no fix, no pill. There is a primitivism in the movie, an old-fashioned way of looking at physical pain that medicaments have essentially eliminated in this country. In 1717, a basic migraine was incurable: it was blinding pain that had to be waited out. In 2017, a basic migraine is manageable with Excedrin or whatever your drug of choice is. Lanthimos is wondering about what happens in our world of Excedrin if the bottles are whisked away, if the comfort of a solution is eliminated. It is not a promising picture, but for all the fairy tale possibilities of the movie, it seems an accurate one.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is the story of two doctors, one a heart surgeon and the other an ophthalmologist, whose children become seriously ill. They call on medical scans, intensive tests from specialists. They try endlessly to diagnose them. Given only a series of portents to work with by a mysterious teenager who has befriended(?) the surgeon, in the end they cannot figure out what to do except take the signs given to them by the teenager as truth. The children appear to be well enough, except for the fact that they have no desire for food whatever and their legs don’t work. (I can distance myself from the movie a smidgen because I don’t have children, though I can appreciate the fact that no one with children could watch this movie without being dunked headfirst into a parent’s worst nightmare.)
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a highly individual film, which I came to realize when I was trying to diagnose it about halfway through. The acting is distant and completely devoid of melodrama. Sometimes voices are even missing tone; Colin Farrell has become especially good at speaking in a clipped, matter-of-fact way, while Barry Keoghan displays a talent for a sing-song bounce without melody. Did that make it like Bresson, whose actors were more like “models,” in his words? Bresson could never have made this movie, though; just because Christian Patey and Martin LaSalle didn’t speak with much emotion either doesn’t mean that Sacred Deer has a worldview anything like those in L’argent or Pickpocket. Lanthimos hates a straight close-up in this movie, choosing some other shot more often than not. He is perpetually distancing us from the characters in wide shots or, alternately, taking us just above or below a character’s face. We look up at Martin (Keoghan) as he explains the choice that Steven (Farrell) must make, his head essentially hovering over the table. While he eats what is almost certainly Mom’s spaghetti in front of Anna (Kidman), the camera does not center on him, choosing instead, with a little help from Keoghan’s leaning, to put him in a position to the right. (This is historically a more positive position to place a character than not.) I was reminded of Paul Thomas Anderson, or Malick, maybe, both of whom have strong command over a wide camera. Yet neither of those directors is above an extreme close-up when a character is making a point or must be reckoned with, and so I bounced off of those comparison as well. Lanthimos is not as brutal as Haneke, but he is more complicated than Fincher. He likes his long moving shots, but McQueen likes them more. Heck, I even started trying to relate the movie back to novelists; the closest comparison I could make was Camus, but that doesn’t seem to fit neatly enough either. The best way I can understand the movie, then, is on Lanthimos’ own terms, and his terms are as individual as the movie itself. I return to the way the movie opens, the way that Lanthimos seems to predict some objections to his ectothermic picture. Sacred Deer begins with the movie’s only extreme close-up, panning slowly back to reveal heart surgery, but not until we have gotten our fill of the inside of a heart, thumping and squelching along. How can we say this movie has no warm, beating heart? Rather than give an ounce of his movie over to melodrama, we begin with a purely physical heartbeat.
First, we must accept that this is not the real world and that the laws of the real world falter in the face of the movie’s laws. If this were a real exercise, then it would be only too simple for a hospital with these resources to figure out what was wrong with Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and there would be some reason. But it’s clear that the reason they are sick has something to do with Martin, whose predictions about the conditions of Steven’s children are quite accurate. They are not perfect. According to Martin, Anna should lose her appetite at some point, but she never does; Kim gets up and walks over to the window of her hospital room to look for Martin when he calls her. All the same, I don’t know that this is a reason to believe that Martin does not have some powerful influence over the Murphy family, or that his powers are unlike those of an evil stepmother or dangerous warlock.
Second, crime is irrelevant. Steven appears to have gotten off scot-free after his misadventure with Martin’s dad. The death of one of Steven’s kids is not commented on by the law any more than the fact that Steven kidnaps Martin and tortures him in the basement. This is a small piece of the puzzle, but it also helps to complete the story in a way that simplifies it significantly and keeps the focus on a relatively small cast of characters. There is no fear of the law and no complications such as “Where do we hide the body?” The movie is not about this sort of banality, but about the intensity of deciding on a preordained death.
Third, and probably most importantly, Martin’s motivation to do harm is mostly inscrutable. Martin spends a lot of time—unseen months—with Steven before unleashing whatever curse he has the power to wield. After Martin’s dad dies on the operating table under Steven’s knife, Martin begins to gravitate to the surgeon. He comes to the hospital. He meets Steven’s family and has Steven come over to meet his mother (the entirely unexpected Alicia Silverstone). Steven buys Martin a watch; Martin brings little keychains to Steven’s children. The end result of this, about forty minutes of patient storytelling, is that we believe that neither person bears the other a grudge. Steven’s family is taken with Martin, especially Kim, who develops an unflagging crush on him, stripping down to her underwear at one point and laying out on her bed in a position not unlike her father’s favorite Steven is a little leery about Martin being around all the time, and is definitely uncomfortable about the fact that Martin appears to be setting him up with his mother, whose flirtation technique seems a little out of practice. They watch Groundhog Day at Martin’s request, which was his father’s favorite movie. After Martin leaves to give them some space, she compliments his hands—she and Martin just gush about how beautiful Steven’s hands are—before, as far as I can tell, trying to swallow them whole like a python would. Bob begins to lose his ability to walk, reported as a numbness in his legs, not long afterwards.
It is tempting to read Steven’s rejection of Martin’s mother and her caramel tart as the final straw for Martin, the test he fails. I don’t know that I buy that; I don’t think causality is so neat as sequence in this movie. It seems entirely possible that Martin would have always attacked Steven’s family, although his stated reason (“fairness,” in a very Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent sense, and with about as much blood in the end) could quite easily have been transmuted into “getting rid of Steven’s former life now that he lives with Martin and his mom.” Yet this is too much reasoning already. I like the idea of this movie better when Martin is a phenomenon and not a cipher, and the movie, as we’ve already stated, bounces external logic off of itself.
As the noose begins to tighten around the necks of the Murphys, they begin to appeal for aid. Anna says to Steven that it’s only logical to kill one of the children, because they could probably have another one of those. Bob, who was scolded earlier in the movie for not getting a haircut and for being difficult about his chores, pulls himself out of his bed, gives himself something like a haircut, and is intercepted by his father while he’s on his way to water the plants. (That sort of bargaining is a particularly apt metaphor for how mainstream Christians in America interact with God; if this movie is as metaphorical as Martin seems to believe it is, then certainly this is a worthwhile zone to mine.) Wisely, Steven and Kim go right to the source. Steven kidnaps Martin and tries to beat him into submission, which Anna understands will not change anything. Kim, who never jettisons her affection for Martin and who seems to understand his reasoning, whatever it is, goes to him directly and asks him to fix her. It is the only scene where the bobble-headed hobbledehoy seems less than comfortable. In the end, the only thing that helps is, as the title indirectly references via the story of Iphigenia, doing just what the gods demand.