Even before bad things start to happen, it’s clear that something is seriously off in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. There’s a cringy neediness to teenaged Martin who goes to see cardiologist Steven at the hospital every single day, but it’s more than that: without ever spelling it out, he demands the older man’s attention and care, as if the heart surgeon owed him. As if the young man had something on him. There’s more than a hint of blackmail in the daily visits, the disproportional gifts he gets from Stephen, the teenager’s wheedling but insistent voice – and the complete absence of any resistance on Steven’s part. It’s as if he already fears the punishment that might follow.
Except I may be attributing too much in the way of human emotion to The Killing of a Sacred Deer‘s characters. As in Yorgos Lanthimos’ last film, the absurdist black comedy The Lobster, the performances are almost entirely drained of affect. In The Lobster, this tended to amplified the deadpan comedy; in this film, the core cast of characters come across as practically robotic at first, as if they’re merely going through the motions of being human. Even when the bad things begin to happen – first Stephen’s young son Bob loses the ability to use his legs, then his 14-year old daughter Kim does, followed by they both of them no longer eating – Lanthimos keeps emotion at an absolute minimum. The same approach worked well for me in The Lobster, where the characters were enacting, without understanding, the behaviours that society had impressed on them. The Lobster‘s protagonists all gave in to the roles they’d been given, and the contrast between the contortions forced on them by society and the way they behaved as if all of this was not just normal but indeed in their best interest was comical but it also carried a strange pathos – though one so understated that it was easy to miss. I could see the point in stripping the characters of practically all overt emotion in the earlier film – but the same approach not only failed to engage me in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, it did the opposite: because the film is less interested in satirising society (as far as I can tell), what we get is individuals acting in almost robotic ways. If those individuals don’t seem to care one way or another about the horrible things happening to them, why should I?
For the first half of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I found myself half-exasperated, half-angry at what felt like the film’s sadistic streak. It’s not entirely dissimilar to Haneke’s dissections of human dysfunction, but where Haneke leaves his audience the space needed to react, intellectually as well as emotionally, to his displays of human cruelty, I felt that Lanthimos was rubbing our faces in it. I wasn’t able to see any reason for the film’s sadism, other than to insist on its absurd meaninglessness. Much like Martin, who punishes Stephen and his family because he considers the surgeon responsible for the death of Martin’s father on the operating table, the director turns his characters into butterflies impaled on long, thin pins, and we were left to watch the twitching of these insectile creatures. I see purpose in the distancing effects posited by Brecht, in particular in a medium as prone to indulging in sentimentalism as cinema – but by the time we got to the halfway point I found myself disengaged and disinterested, yet also frustrated and not a little resentful – which isn’t exactly a good position from which to appreciate any film. Consider this: I like a lot of the cinema of directors Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier, both of whom have been accused of sadism, towards their characters as well as their audiences. Nonetheless, I didn’t like the first half of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, because it rarely felt anything other than cruel, an effect that was only amplified by the director’s skillful craftsmanship.
This did change somewhat in the film’s second half, as the characters – in particular Stephen (Colin Farrell) and his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) – come to realise and acknowledge just how intractable their situation is and lash out against it and against each other in recognizably human ways, but the damage had already been done. One hour’s worth of resentment against a film isn’t easily brushed aside. I was better able to appreciate what Lanthimos was doing, I started seeing the parallels the film draws between Martin, the author of Stephen’s misery, and writer-director Lanthimos, and especially the final scenes gave the characters a humanity they’d previously lacked. Nevertheless, I’m still left to wonder: was I simply not receptive to the emotional and psychological undercurrents earlier in the film? Was my irritation not a bug but a feature, making me more receptive for the emotional extremes that the characters reach? Was I somehow more willing to accept characters seemingly drained of all affect in an (albeit pitch-black) comedy than in what practically amounts to home-invasion horror?
I admit: while The Killing of a Sacred Deer frustrated me, but while I’m not keen to revisit it, I am nevertheless wondering if there’s something I missed, if I perhaps overlooked the undercurrents looking for more overt shows of emotion. If I could affect the same emotional distance as Lanthimos’ characters, I might be better able to recommend it for its effectiveness. Thinking back to the actual experience of watching the film, though, and imagining myself rewatching it, I feel myself squirming – much like Lanthimos’ human butterflies.