The Killing of a Sacred Deer: An Unnerving Portrait of the Nuclear Family

The nuclear family has nestled within the belly of cinema for a long time. This comes to mind moreso with classic Hollywood, but we are still used to following stories in which couples complete each other and families, however dysfunctional, stick together no matter what. Yorgos Lanthimos strives to blast this unit to smithereens, and his new film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer achieves this with humor, horror, and oh-so much awkward tension.

There exists a wealth of media that dissects the traditional family unit. The thing that sets Lanthimos apart from the others is that these tensions are usually overtly given to us through the dialogue and actions on screen. We watch the husband and wife viciously bicker, the adulterer or alcoholic forget their family for a few hours under cover of night. These stories are usually genre pieces as well, fitting neatly into the camp of drama, satire, or occasionally, thriller. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is all three. It is genre defying and mystifying, familiar family tension co-mingled with something archaic as human sacrifice. Lanthimos’ films have a particular edge because his spin on the family unit is just a little to the left of what we know. Rather than directly showing these disconnects to us, he provides us with unsettling atmosphere and inorganic conversation, forcing us to feel the tension before it actually manifests.

The characters in Killing of a Sacred Deer fall into easily identifiable roles of husband, wife and child, but their behavior is always stilted and strange. The characters speak politely, but redundantly and bluntly, their tone always veering on defensive. They provide each other in excess their thoughts on everything from wristwatches to how people eat spaghetti, all delivered in a deadpan that is sometimes hilarious and sometimes horrifying. The disconnect comes in as their facades unravel, and we realize that though these characters are thorough in their examinations, they are really only telling each other what they want to hear.

Lanthimos’ previous films, Dogtooth and The Lobster place their characters in absurd, verging on surreal, environments to poke fun at the implicit societal structures that perpetuate the family unit. Killing of a Sacred Deer follows suit, giving the film an off-beat tone that mirrors how the characters are out of step with each other.

The film follows family man and surgeon Steven Murphy (played by the incomparable Colin Farrell) who has befriended the disturbed but very well-mannered teenage Martin (played by the relatively unknown but very talented Barry Keoghan) after his father’s passing. Taking pity on the boy, he invites him over for dinner where he forms an intimate (and later, unsettling) bond with Steven’s teenage daughter, Kim (Raffey Cassidy in what is certainly the best performance of her career so far). The boy returns the favor by inviting Steven over for a very uncomfortable dinner with himself and his widowed mother. During this scene it becomes clear he had ulterior motives all along. Both Martin and his mother are hurt and lonely over the death of their father and husband, and were hoping to find a replacement in Steven. When Steven rejects the pass Martin’s mother makes at him, all hell breaks loose.

It is revealed to us that Martin’s father died as a result of a botched operation performed by Steven, and since Steven will not take the role of his father, Martin demands an eye for an eye. Steven’s son, Bob (played by Sunny Suljic, another relatively unknown actor with a definite presence), becomes mysteriously paralyzed one morning from the waist down, and the best medical experts are unable to find any explanation for it. Martin reveals to Steven the mysterious illness that has overtaken Bob is a form of mystical retribution. He warns that the illness will spread to his wife (played by goddess of screen, Nicole Kidman) and daughter, eventually resulting in the death of his entire family, unless he chooses one of them to kill. Just as Martin had a family member taken from him, he wants Steven to take away one of his own, something Martin admits may not be fair, but describes as “the closest thing [he] can think of to justice”.

What follows is the story of a family faced with an impossible decision, forced to sacrifice one of their own for the good of the greater unit, the children especially vying for their father’s approval. Killing of a Sacred Deer is absurd to be sure, but so are the systemic structures of house and home we take as a given. By contrasting the supernatural with the mundane, Lanthimos brings to our attention the absurdities underpinning the roles we readily cast ourselves in, forcing us to take a closer look at what it means to be a father or a mother or a child, what really bonds us with these people whose only sure connection to us is blood.

Killing of a Sacred Deer is enchanting and thought-provoking from a critical standpoint, but also excellent from a technical standpoint. The orchestral swells of music and crisp expansive shots immerse us totally in their world and there isn’t a single misdelivered line or mediocre actor in the entire film. Yorgos Lanthimos is without a doubt one of the most original and brilliant directors currently working, and in a year full of fantastic films, this still holds up as one of the best.

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