'The Killing of a Sacred Deer' Is a Rare, Artful Horror Film

Yorgos Lanthimos talks us through his follow up to 2015’s ‘The Lobster’, a dark thriller starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell.

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Nov 14 2017, 1:12pm

Is there anything scarier than a teenage boy? While watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer you wonder why more horror films don’t make villains out of troubled young men. In it, young actor Barry Keoghan (you might recognise him from Dunkirk) plays Martin, a vindictive 16-year-old who is creepy from the outset—although director Yorgos Lanthimos doesn’t reveal his true capacity to terrify until the film is more than halfway over.

To answer the question though, there is a horror trope more terrifying than an angry adolescent with a vendetta: the haunted hospital. And The Killing of a Sacred Deer has one of those, too. It’s a large, clean, expensive-looking hospital, inhabited by world-class heart surgeons like Steven Murphy, played with appropriately clinical precision by Colin Farrell. These surgeons have godlike powers but human fallacies, and somehow a random teenager knows all about Steven’s very private flaws and is out to blackmail him.

To reveal more about this strange and unsettling plot would ruin it, but suffice to say the immensely privileged life of Steven and his family—Nicole Kidman plays his wife Anna, also a doctor—gets totally fucked up by a kid with acne and a perverted sense of justice borrowed from Greek mythology.

The film takes its title from Euripides’ play Iphigenia in Aulis, in which the Greek army commander Agamemnon accidentally kills a sacred deer belonging to the goddess Artemis. In order to repay the debt, Artemis demands that he sacrifice his own child. Colin Farrell’s surgeon—a man who, you get the feeling, has never before lost control of his very comfortable life—comes up against a similar dilemma at the behest of Martin.

The similarities aren’t accidental, but Lanthimos isn’t a Classics scholar so much as a writer and director asking age-old questions, and trying to do so (often very successfully) in weird new ways.

“We referenced the story in the film as a reminder that many people have questioned the same issues that are mentioned over time, and many of them we weren’t able to resolve them in any satisfactory way,” he tells me over the phone, forced to try to explain himself to journalists in fifteen-minute increments as part of a press junket.

Lanthimos, who received an Oscar nomination for his first English language feature The Lobster in 2016, is a gifted oddball. He and writing partner Efthymis Filippou build their screenplays from tiny scattered details. “Smaller things like fragments of a story that seems interesting for some reason, elements of human behaviour,” he says. “Rather than an end point or main question.”

While The Lobster (which also stars a ridiculously on-point Farrell) was an absurdist black comedy, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is straight up horror. So those elements of human behaviour it examines are less cheerful—don’t expect quirky meditations on modern romantic relationships. There’s human blood in the opening shot, and things only get more distressing from there. You’re going to feel some discomfort, and Farrell has subtly switched gears from charming to menacing. As in real life, it’s a fine line.

A master of atmosphere, Lanthimos sustains a two-hour horror film by revealing its intentions painfully slowly. Even the camerawork is artfully measured out to maximum effect. “I wanted the camera to be like almost another entity in the film, something following the characters and observing them from above and hovering above them and creeping from below, to get a sense of otherworldly presence,” he explains.

In fact, every element of the film is heavily stylised and deliberate. The script, for example: Farrell, Kidman, and Keoghan must all contend with dialogue that is almost comically detached and cold. They don’t speak like real people, except that somehow they do. Lanthimos insists he doesn’t do much to direct his actors—rather, they’re forced into certain corners by the way they’re written. The result, he hopes, “is precise, awkward, funny, dark, and honest.”

Farrell and Kidman slip into their roles perfectly, mimicking the stiff coldness of America’s suburban elite. They unravel as their pristine lives are disrupted by the unwelcome presence of the all-controlling Martin, and while now more than ever I’m predisposed to enjoy watching rich and powerful people get what’s coming to them, things aren’t quite so clear-cut. Sure, the movie’s central couple are insufferable, out-of-touch, upper class posers who force their dull children to join choirs and aspire towards high-powered medical careers—but they don’t totally deserve the level of physical and psychological stress that Lanthimos and Filippou impose on them. Or do they?

The Killing of a Sacred Deer offers up a smorgasbord of crooked, uncomfortable symbolism. It has only just enough in the way of a traditional narrative to keep the audience hooked, and is otherwise cloaked in an immense, troubling sense of ambiguity perhaps designed to discomfort Hollywood audiences who are familiar with tidy endings and a strong sense of right and wrong. Who expect crime and punishment.

Don’t try and pin any of this ambition on Lanthimos, though. In our interview, he’s opaque about his intentions. The director will admit only that he wants to make something affecting—and that he wants to cede autonomy to the audience, who can make their own meaning of his twisted, endlessly beguiling scenes.

“I never think in metaphors, or fully make those kind of associations myself,” he insists. “I just lay down a complex situation and hope things arise from that. The most important thing is to allow gaps and openings for people to make up their own minds—I don’t want my film to be pretending to have one important truth to tell anyone.”

The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ opens nationwide on Thursday November 16

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