I’ve only watched two of Lanthimos’ films including this one, but among those works I’ve noticed a sort of singular obsession of his. In both The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer we see him cast relationships in a brutally cynical light, whether that be romantic or familial. While The Lobster tackles our inherent fear of dying alone, The Killing of a Sacred Deer functions as an all-out assault on the nuclear family. Perhaps by itself that’s not entirely a unique concept in film, but given Lanthimos’ bizarre screenplay and direction, it certainly becomes a work of its own.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer stars Collin Farrell as a middle-aged heart surgeon named Steven Murphy with a beautiful house, and a well-adjusted, pampered family. Murphy spends a good deal of his time with a high school aged boy named Martin, who we come to find out was the son of a previous patient. As Martin attempts to bring Murphy closer into his family it is immediately obvious that there is something very wrong with this high schooler, thus beginning the surrealist nightmare the Murphys must endure.
This being a Lanthimos picture we once again are subject to his idiosyncratic writing style, casting his characters as broad ideas rather than actual people. Instead of communicating like regular human beings, these people speak plainly and directly, encompassing archetypical character types in an oddball presentation. These characters don’t get traditional arcs; instead they are stripped down until they’re nothing but vessels of pure self-interest. There’s a systematic brutality to this family’s descent. While their method of speech feels alien and awkward at first, they seemingly become more human as they begin to lose all sense of decency.
One of the most interesting aspects of the picture is that it is a horror movie that thoroughly exists outside of the genre’s trappings. As a matter of fact, the writing and shot composition are so similar to The Lobster, an absurdist comedy, that the only way you can tell it’s a horror movie for the first 30 minutes or so is because the soundtrack keeps telling you it’s the case. This doesn’t hold true past the first act, but unsurprisingly it’s a thoroughly unconventional stab at the genre. The horror on display here isn’t in the form a chilling monster, a blood thirsty serial killer, or some other sort of otherworldly being. The horror is instead defined by how this idyllic family is pulled apart by their fear of their own mortality, selfishly turning on each other.
However, even as an avid fan of weird pieces of media, sometimes the film’s stubborn refusal to obey film making conventions feels arbitrary. The previously described artificiality of the dialogue and acting makes it difficult to feel emotionally invested in the Murphy family. While it works as an abstract indictment of the bonds of family, and while the Lanthimos point is well articulated, it’s tough to be invested in the literal story we’re being told. Because as Martin would say, “It’s metaphorical”.