The scariest movie in theaters this Halloween season isn’t the one where a college kid relives the night she was brutally murdered over and over, nor is it the one in which a homicidal maniac with a god complex designs elaborate games in order to torture and kill his victims, nor is it the movie about a clown who eats children. (Well, it might be the one about the child-eating clown.) Instead, the scariest movie in theaters right now is probably one that involves very little blood, only a couple instances of real violence, and features perhaps the most courteous and gentle villain maybe ever put on film. For all that, The Killing of a Sacred Deer still manages to be completely, viscerally terrifying in a way no other movie I’ve ever seen does.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a movie best seen without knowing too much about its plot, so I won’t get too deep into spoiler territory here. ***(Though if you want to know absolutely nothing about it, stop now and go watch it without reading this spoiler-adjacent blog post. It’s worth it.)*** However, it probably does help to know the broad conceit of the movie, which is in some ways a modern retelling of the ancient Greek play Iphigenia in Aulis.
Iphigenia in Aulis tells the story of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, and the terrible price his family is made to pay once it’s revealed the king killed a deer that was precious to the goddess Artemis. Artemis demands Agamemnon remedy the loss of her deer—the sacred deer referenced in this movie’s title—by sacrificing one of his children, either daughter Iphigenia or son Orestes, in her honor. Ultimately, it is Iphigenia whom the anguished king selects, and she is brought into town on false pretexts to pay for her father’s sin with her life. After a period of resistance, as the understandably enraged and distraught princess tries to save herself from her cruel sentence, Iphigenia assents to her fate for the greater good.
Substitute ancient Greece for modern Cincinnati, swap King Agamemnon for Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell’s successful heart surgeon and devoted family man of a lead character), Queen Clytemnestra for Anna (Steven’s prim and proper wife who goes to great lengths to care for and cater to her seemingly idyllic family), Iphigenia and Orestes for Kim and Bob (their young, sweet, and well-mannered children), and Artemis for Martin (an at once exceedingly polite and mystically deranged 16-year-old boy), and you more or less have the premise of The Killing of a Sacred Deer. But the lunacy that awaits these characters far outstrips anything the ancient Greeks would’ve been prepared for. Think Sophie’s Choice meets Antichrist.
After an opening few scenes as wonderfully bizarre and inscrutable as we’ve come to expect from director Yorgos Lanthimos’s movies (if you’ve seen any of his stuff, most probably either 2009's Dogtooth or 2015's The Lobster, you’ll get the aggressively strange, highly affected vibe), the stakes of the story finally bubble to the surface. Years ago, Steven operated on Martin’s father, and Martin’s father didn’t survive. Blaming Steven for his father’s death (which we later find out might truly have been due to Steven’s own negligence) and out for justice, Martin tells Steven that unless Steven kills one member of his own family, each of his kids and wife will suddenly die from a mysterious illness that, by the time of Martin’s reveal, has already begun to affect the son. From there things only get wilder and wilder as Steven—a man of science—struggles with whether to believe Martin’s plot, whether and to what degree he should inform his wife of what’s happening, and after realizing that there’s no escape, trying to decide what to do as the entire family and their perfect facades slip away to reveal the family’s craven, self-centered, brutal core.
The main thing I’d like to convey about the experience of watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer is its complete physical domination of my body. Never have I sat there in a theater and been so physically possessed by the events on screen which were compelling me just to move. I squirmed, I cackled, I fidgeted, I sat there in slack-jawed awe, I inched to the edge of my seat in nervous/giddy anticipation of whether or not the movie would “go there,” I slumped deep in my seat with my head in my hands in horror after the movie did in fact “go there” and even further, I hiked the neckhole of my sweatshirt just high enough on my nose to be able to quickly bury my face into it if the thing I feared might happen happened (but not so high as to not be able to see whatever did eventually happen), at all times realizing that my quickly vacillating emotional state was flipping through joy and horror and astonishment and hilarity as this brilliant, stupefying, fucking insane movie worked its magic on me. This has been a good time for this brand of physical filmmaking: mother! and Mad Max: Fury Road had similar effects on me from their sheer visceral power on my very being. But neither of those could quite match the overwhelmingly physical response I had while watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
So what’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer about, anyway? I don’t think that really matters. The clearest idea I had when coming out of the movie was about responsibility—about the way a person can go to great lengths to avoid accountability for how their actions and decisions have contributed to where they currently find themselves in life, all out of a cowardly sense of protecting their self and their self-image. Steven may not quite deserve to be posed with this choice, and the members of his family certainly don’t, but the choice is there and he is the one who brought the problem home and yet he continues to cast about for some outside power to fix things while those around him suffer. And, not to spoil what is a simultaneously utterly shocking and almost tear-inducingly funny climax, but Steven never really chooses anything, even in the end. This isn’t a world of logic, and there’s no real justification for why (and especially not how) Martin does what he does, but the whys and the hows don’t feel very relevant. Like the stories of Greek myth, people are posed with impossible circumstances and are forced to deal with them, their choices revealing the person they truly are.
Much more than any thematic analysis, what matters here is how remarkable a feat of writing, directing, shooting, and acting the The Killing of a Sacred Deer is. This movie, more than any of Lanthimos’s others, distills his aesthetic to its essence. As similar in vibe as The Killing of a Sacred Deer is to, say, The Lobster, Lanthimos this time around managed to create a world not of pure dark comedy but one where comedy, terror, and genuine pathos exist in every moment of every scene. That, more than anything else, is why I felt so physically compelled by the happenings on the screen; at all times I was overwhelmed with feelings in all different directions, my body writhing under the glorious strain of it all.
No, The Killing of a Sacred Deer isn’t necessarily about anything (whatever that even means), but if there is one clarifying scene that crystalized the movie’s effect and the enjoyment to be had in it, it’s one towards the end. Martin—at this point his plot well on its way to completion, and he’s found himself duct-taped to a chair in the Murphys’ basement by Steven, who has decided to take a more direct approach toward stopping the madness—provides Steven with a demonstration of what’s going on right after his captor had hurled his fist into Martin’s face. Blood oozing from his mouth (this is one of probably two scenes of physical violence), a couple of teeth clattering to the cement floor, Martin calmly turns to Steven, grabs the man’s arm, and sinks his teeth into Steven’s flesh. After a struggle, the startled and injured Steven finally manages to tear his arm away. He rolls up his shirt sleeve and inspects his sizable new wound.
Martin, as placid as ever, explains that there is no way he can soothe Martin’s pain, no amount of physical or emotional comforting will make the hurting stop. But there is a solution, Martin says, as he raises his own forearm to his mouth. He then plunges his own teeth into his own forearm, tearing at the flesh until thick streams of blood flow down his arm and his chin. With a final torquing of his head, Martin’s mouth leaves his arm, and he spits out a hunk of his own skin onto the floor. Steven, and the audience in the theater, recoils in horror.
Martin then addresses Steven once more. “You see? It’s a metaphor.”
What is this reciprocal rending of flesh, this graphic demonstration of eye-for-an-eye-style justice a metaphor of? And how does this relate to the movie as a whole, to what you’re supposed to take away from its message? Who the fuck cares? What it unquestionably is is some mind-melting, hilarious, scary, cringe-inducing, completely captivating stuff to watch. And that is more than enough.