Does it make me a basic bitch if I need to engage with a film on its most literal level to enjoy it? Or, to take a step back, is it fair that I need to enjoy a film to like it? The Killing of a Sacred Deer clearly has a lot going on that thoughtful critics can engage with: complicated social criticism, obscure references, deep themes, and deliberate deconstruction of cinematic tropes. But it’s also, for me, a movie that pushes director Yorgos Lanthimos’ stoic style too far. When I hear the phrase “it’s not for everyone,” I always think “I’m not everyone, it must be for me.” But in this case, a deliberately off-putting movie made me too uncomfortable to really like it. And I think that may be my problem, not the movie’s.
Steven (Colin Farrell) is a successful heart surgeon who’s apparently got it all: great job, big house, loving wife, adoring children, cute dog. He’s even got a great watch that’s lasted him a decade thanks to its resilient metallic band. Martin (Barry Keoghan, one of the Dunkirk guys and another member of The Eternals cast) is a teenage boy that’s been meeting with Steven at a diner. Steven explains that Martin’s father died in a car accident and that he’s been helping the young man deal with his grief. They seem to have a good relationship, Martin clearly idolizes the older man. So it’s a big deal when Steven invites Martin over for dinner and to meet his family. Martin impresses them all: wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) appreciates his manners, teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) falls for his dreamy, troubled loner vibe, and adolescent son Bob (Sunny Suljic) just likes his armpit hair.
Things take a turn soon after, when Martin reciprocates by bringing Steven over to his home for another dinner. Martin’s mom (Alicia Silverstone) makes a pass at Steven, which he dutifully rejects. After this, Steven starts distancing himself from Martin, and the young man begins to act more strangely. Around this time, Bob wakes up one morning unable to move his legs. The doctors at Steven’s hospital are stumped as to the cause, but Martin takes Steven aside and tells him the deal: Martin’s father was killed in surgery by a mistake Steven made. As revenge, Martin is demanding Steven kill one member of his family. If he doesn’t, they will all three get sick by becoming paralyzed from the waist down, refusing food, bleeding from their eyes, and then they will die.
Sandwiched between the two other Lanthimos movies I’ve seen, The Lobster and The Favourite, 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer immediately felt different because of its familiar setting: contemporary Cincinnati. By placing it in what is ostensibly our modern world, Lanthimos’ style immediately clashes with the reality of the situations depicted. His trademark deadpan, straightforward dialogue seemed truly bizarre and alien, something that didn’t bother me nearly as much in a vaguely sci-fi setting or coming from fictionalized versions of historical royalty. When Steven brags to a colleague that his daughter just had her first period, it’s funny in a very cringe-y way, but it seems like the characters in the movie react like that’s actually something you would boast about.
There is a current of dark comedy flowing throughout the movie, but as things get more bleak I didn’t have the heart to be amused. I get why someone could laugh at the image of children dragging their immobile legs around on the floor and begging their father not to kill them, but it’s just so sad. Nicole Kidman has a pretty thankless role in all this, mostly existing to fulfill men’s sexual fantasies or act upset that men are making poor decisions and she must suffer the consequences. The scene that felt like should have been her most pivotal was actually brushed aside pretty quickly. It’s all in service of creating a truly surreal final, horrific act that fully encapsulates The Killing of a Sacred Deer‘s darkness and ridiculousness.
So yeah, this movie was so weird and bleak that I just did not have a good time watching it. It was an odd experience for me, because I thought I knew what to expect given that I liked the other two movies I’d seen from this director. For all the other people out there who loved this movie because they were able to read into it messages about capitalism and morality and god and body hair, I wish I had your experience. Mostly I was just uncomfortable. Which was definitely what the movie was trying to make me feel, so… success?