Yorgos Lanthimos is not a director that I thought I would ever be seeing so much of. Dogtooth, his big breakout film, got nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009, and it truly is a great movie, but it's also very brutal, very odd, and very cold. There's definitely not any mass appeal in it, in fact it does a fantastic job at alienating viewers with it's incredible weirdness. I saw this movie, then a few years later, I was suddenly seeing trailers for an English language movie by Lanthimos, The Lobster, which is also an incredible film I think about constantly. And now here I am, having seen yet another one of his movies, also in English, with a third coming next year. I couldn't be happier that Lanthimos is getting these opportunities, and a chance to go see a movie of his in theaters is a chance I relish.
I will preface this with my opinion upfront: The Killing of a Sacred Deer is the weakest of the three Lanthimos pictures I've seen so far. It is still a great movie, but I can't help but feel it could have been even better than it was. The movie seems to move at first with a near glacial pace, with several seemingly normal scenes being presented with music denoting the fact that something scary or tense is happening. This is all on purpose, and I appreciate it, because the movie holds a near constant pace, with the horror ramping up slowly, but non-stop. You're eased into it in a way that helps it to suddenly catch you off guard, because you barely even realize the frightening world you've entered into. Lanthimos' first foray into (mostly) straight psychological horror really highlights some of his strengths as a director. His ability to make the audience feel tense about seemingly innocuous things through devices like framing is impeccable as it always is, and his other movies always contain elements that are in their own way, horrifying, but never have they been straight up horror. His characters signature cold, robotic, detatched dialogue works both for and against him here as well. Martin, the primary antagonist to Steven's (Collin Farrell, in his second Lanthimos picture) protagonist, is a terrifying character through his uncanny calm throughout circumstances that should be emotionally trying even for the person causing them. Steven is essentially the only character in the movie to express any strong emotion, which while I appreciate in a way since we are tied to the protagonist more than the other characters, I still feel might have been a small mistake. Some actions lack the emotional punch that I feel they should have because none of the other characters react very strongly to them. Their lack of response is part of what drives the horror forward, but at the same time makes the horror seem a little bit too detached.
The plot here is incredibly strong and very inventive, the story of this movie was never uninteresting or boring (though as I said, it did seem slow at times). Martin inflicts terrible pain on Steven and his family through means that seem supernatural. How he does what he does is never explained, which personally I'm very glad about. Part of what made the film so horrifying and bizarre was this inexplicable disease ravaging the family that Martin seemingly had complete control over, able to make the symptoms disappear and reappear as he saw fit. Initially poisoning could be suspected, but as the movie goes on, it becomes apparent that whatever is happening is not something that can be explained by science. Martin at one point, when threatened with a gun, makes a comment that if he dies, Steven's whole family will die with him, saying "It'll be as if you killed 4 people with a single bullet". There is something otherworldly going on here, but just as in Lanthimos' other movies, the exact nature of this device is not important. It is simply the driving force behind the decisions that the characters have to make, and in that manner, it excels wonderfully. The soundtrack aids this feeling, sometimes striking like a physical blow, sudden and loud and chaotic to the point of being unnerving all on it's own. It even a few times overwhelms the characters and drowns them out mid-sentence, underlining the terror taking place. I would be remiss if I didn't mention it, because it very much adds to the uncomfortable atmoshpere that is built so expertly throughout the film.
My progression through this movie went from "This seems kind of odd" to involuntarily covering my eyes during the final scenes, not wanting to watch the outcome of this terrible tale, but being too curious to look away for more than a moment. Horror seems like something I would very much like Lanthimos to explore again sometime in the future. He has a knack for this kind of movie, and I think I view The Killing of a Sacred Deer as something of an experiment for him, seeing what does and doesn't work. As I said, it's a great movie, especially for any fans of Lanthimos like me, seeing him get a little out of his comfort zone is really interesting. As I left the theater, I felt slightly dissatisfied with the ending and it's suddenness, thinking back to the deep impact that the final images of The Lobster had on me and still have on me to this day. But as I think about it more, as I remember my visceral reactions to the final, climactic scene in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I'm coming around to the idea that Lanthimos may have constructed yet another ending that will haunt me as his other seem to do, forever sticking in my mind.