Lanthimos unsettles viewers with The Killing of a Sacred Deer

About halfway through The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Barry Keoghan bites off more of his own forearm than he can chew. Before spitting himself out, he claims this is all “metaphorical.” On top of making everyone in the audience laugh nervously, it is precisely at this moment that the audience realizes the director, Yorgos Lanthimos, is not pulling any punches, despite how he telegraphed Sacred Deer’s symbolism.

Imagine the most macabre public service announcement that might compare to the moral ballpark of Sacred Deer’s message — like Mentos and Coke, heavy drinking and heart surgery should not be mixed.

Apparently some surgeons have to learn this the hard way, by way of sacrificing a member of their family before a strange, inexplicable curse cripples, starves and horrifically kills everyone they love. This is what Dr. Steven Murphy, played by Colin Farrell, is propositioned to do by the son of one of his late patients. What follows is less an act of revenge on the part of Keoghan’s Martin than a twisted web of cosmic justice that every character is caught in. Having taken the child under his wing as a means of reparation, this relationship is the catalyst for Murphy’s only chance at redemption. Martin has clung to him ever since the death of his father, practically imprinting onto Murphy as a father figure.

His mother is no different, hilariously so. But if hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, then there must be a baser dimension even more terrifying for shunning a bastard child. Martin quickly overstays his welcome in the family’s house and the minute Murphy tries to cut ties with him, the Murphy estate descends into madness. Murphy must come to terms with his past at the rest of his family’s expense: they are the collateral. What difference does one’s relationship to a patient make when their recklessness is ultimately responsible for another’s untimely death? Blood is blood, a pound is a pound, and in effect Murphy is forced to make the same mistake twice, only now so painfully aware of his actions that it incapacitates his ability to perform. The final metaphor of the film hinges on this indecisiveness.

Understandably there are very few actual jokes in Sacred Deer because Lanthimos is not playing around. Like his characters, it is the absolute seriousness of his tone that evokes much of the film’s humor. The only laughs are from how uncomfortable he makes his audience feel without actually making them leave in disgust. This is not so much walking the tightrope of good taste as somersaulting over the Grand Canyon of what is palatable. This self-awareness is a defining feature when compared to chief inspirations like an intersection between the cosmic horror of It Follows, the sound design and oppressive atmosphere of The Witch and the brutality of Funny Games.

Sacred Deer often feels like the embodiment of a Shepard tone, the auditory illusion that gave Dunkirk’s soundtrack its unnerving edge, where synchronized octaves fade in and out and loop around like the colors of a barber’s pole, turning a crescendo into an almost unbearably anticlimactic score.

Lanthimos’ ability to provoke such debilitating discomfort stems from his timing. His camera stalks the main characters and lingers, almost predatorily at times, overhead.

The cinematography consistently reinforces the psychological horror that makes Sacred Deer so fun to watch and is at times its most unsettling feature. This is something best demonstrated in Lanthimos’ submission to the New York Times’ Anatomy of a Scene, where it is revealed that entire scenes were indeed shot in reverse. This camera trick was consistently used and used well, with the jerky movements and dubbed over audio working perfectly together to turn the characters into helpless marionettes.

Only Murphy moves freely through the prison of his household. Being the one who must sacrifice a family member, how little Farrell’s character develops becomes a facet of his robotic personality. But once it is clear how and why Murphy’s beautiful hands could be the cause of Martin’s father’s premature death, the state of his own family calls to mind other horrendous forms of medical malpractice.

Imagine a brain surgeon who mistakenly lobotomizes a patient, or an ambulance driver crashing into an old elementary school. Once one removes the unintentional aspect of these mistakes, they become just as premeditated as Martin’s proposal to put down a family member.

The moral of Lanthimos’s film takes shape: you would not, under any circumstance, spin around a room with a loaded hunting rifle and start firing randomly at your loved ones. Yet that is the sort of damage an inebriated medical professional is truly capable of. As extreme as that sounds, the aforementioned circumstances prove this, in fact, to be undeniably true.

Without question, Sacred Deer has the muscle memory needed to find its way around the workings of Lanthimos’ brain without stumbling. Audiences should prepare themselves to be the most uncomfortable one could ever feel in a room full of other equally disturbed people.