One of the most deftly executed and viscerally effective horror films of the year is released under the guise of an eccentric art house drama, as master of unapologetic nihilism Yorgos Lanthimos builds, with intricate precision, the realization of many nightmare every parent must have had. Before we get into any details, a personal side note: With undercover horror masterworks like mother!, It Comes at Night, and now The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is 2017 the year for filmmakers to traumatize parents to the point of becoming catatonic with fear?
I'm all for uncompromising visions that dare peak the audience into some deeply dark and mucky crevices of human imagination, but can we please give parents a break in 2018? For example, I don't have any siblings, so at this point I'd be fine if we get some daring auteur work where something horrible happens to the protagonist's sister or brother. I guess what I'm trying to ask is, can us parents who are fans of off-beat art house horror get a break from waking up in the middle of the night in cold sweat for a little while?
Lanthimos' bread and butter as one of the most unique and visionary directors of our time lies in his particular ability with exploring the inherent helplessness and fragility of the human condition, unsuccessfully hidden under a cellophane veneer of civilized and polite behavior meant to signify self-control. His previous film, The Lobster, despite its deliciously bizarre premise, was full of characters who hung onto their need appear in control of their emotions at all times, in an environment that exposed their loneliness and immense vulnerability at every turn. His new film continues this tradition, as we get characters who are still striving to attach themselves to some form of civilized behavior and logic while their world inexplicably burns around them.
In a technical sense, The Killing of a Sacred Deer has Lanthimos' fingerprints all over it. But narratively, it's a very different beast in comparison to The Lobster. Those who are looking forward to a similar tone of bone-dry whimsy and uber dark humor might be taken aback by the deliberate slow pace and more traditionally dramatic approach during the first act, which almost promises a more toned-down art-house version of "Psychopath who seems friendly at first in order to gain the trust of a benign family before turning their lives into a living nightmare" thrillers. Take your pick from the gamut of early 90s examples, when this sub-genre reigned supreme. My usual go-to reference is The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, simply because I like the way the title rolls of the tongue.
In this case, the seemingly in-control family man whose life will be turned upside down is Steven (Colin Farrell), a monosyllabically scrupulous doctor with the bushy salt-and-pepper beard to prove it. He has formed a mysterious relationship with a young boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan), who seems to suffer from some psychological trouble. As the mystery unravels and Martin slowly becomes a more prominent part of Steven's family, whether Steven wants that to be the case or not, we begin to predict where the story might go, depending on our previous experience with this genre. What we're certainly not prepared for is the masterful way Lanthimos pulls the rug from under us one tiny step at a time, as this otherwise classic premise morphs into a terrifying study on how little control we have over our lives, no matter how much we'd love to pretend otherwise. The whole film is a trap door that flaps open over the course of two hours.
Knowing as little as possible about how The Killing of a Sacred Deer's story unfolds is key for our, well, I can't really say "enjoyment", so perhaps "uncomfortable appreciation" is a better term. The performances are great all around, but I have to give special attention to Barry Keoghan, a relative newcomer who helps create one of the most viscerally frightening horror villains in recent memory, all while acting like a typical awkward teenager the entire time.