With Halloween season in full swing, there is a ton of horror out there to see. This weekend, Yorgos Lathimos throws his hat into the ring with THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER. It’s a very well-made horror/psychological thriller whose title comes a from the Greek story of Agamemnon who accidentally kills a deer in the grove of the goddess Artemus. To appease the angry goddess, he is compelled to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia. Indeed, a similar bargain is struck in this story too, though the reference to Agamemnon is never fully explained. Lathimos’ story begs other questions too, some of them, never fully answered either. It makes for a horror tale that can confound due to such a lack of clarity. The movie also makes one egregious genre mistake that prevents it from being truly affecting.
For horror to work properly, and not just be silly trash, two tenets must always be honored. First, the fear of death needs to dominate the narrative more than actual death. Dread is more powerful and palpable than bloodletting. And films that rely on buckets of blood and gore will revolt the audience. This is where the SAW franchise went wrong. The first film was all about dread. The sequels were all about more elaborate ways to kill people. Second, characters in horror movies should not be too stupid or the audience will give up on them. Audience empathy is always key, and no one wants to root for characters too dumb to respect. Lathimos totally nails the first one, building an incredible sense of dread from the very get-go. Unfortunately, in the third act of his movie, his characters start to act inexplicably stupid and one’s emotional investment starts to wane.
What a shame, because THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER has a wonderful sense of foreboding throughout. It starts with its very first shot – a close-up of open-heart surgery being performed. The throbbing organ looks hideous, almost like some sort of breathing alien in a monster movie. Then, as we watch further, we worry that a scalpel will slip and do terrible damage to the heart. Lathimos places us on the edge of our seats right there, and we’re there almost to the end. Almost.
Lathimos also succeeds with his film’s music cues. They’re big and bombastic even though they often accompany benign shots of empty hospital corridors or conference room meetings. It’s a fun, over-the-top way of foreshadowing all the horrors that will soon be taking place in such a ‘safe’ setting. The production values are top-notch too. Thimios Bakatakis’ camera knows just when to get in tight on a face for the audience to register lies being told, as well as when to pull back to keep a cool and objective distance from the horrific things happening on screen. Even his wide shots of the rich mansion are framed to almost suggest a prison. Bravo!
The director also ensures that his cast of characters are sneaky and deceitful, adding more menace and mischief to the mix. Bushy-bearded cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) talks around people, dispassionately chatting mostly about minutiae. Whether it’s discussing watch band preferences with his anesthesiologist Matthew (Bill Camp), or making small talk at a meal with his family, Murphy is distant and aloof. So is his family. Wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), 14-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and 12-year-old Bob (Sunny Siljic) seem to talk without ever really expressing what they’re feeling. This is one frosty family.
But they’re not nearly as creepy as the fatherless teen that Dr. Murphy is cultivating a strained and strange relationship with. Martin (Barry Keoghan, a million miles from his sweet turn in DUNKIRK) pushes the doc to meet with him at diners and parks and keeps dropping in on him at work. And Murphy is buying the boy gifts too. Why? It turns out that the boy’s father died on Murphy’s operating table and the surgeon feels sorry for the teen. It’s a very inappropriate response, suggesting that the doctor feels extreme guilt over his failure to keep the parent alive, and it’s rendered even more complicated when Murphy accepts dinner invitations to the boy’s home, and invites him over to dine with his brood as well. Sexual tensions intrude on both dinners as Martin’s lonely mom (a game Alicia Silverstone) flirts with Murphy, and when Martin visits his home, he and Kim make goo-goo eyes at each other.
Soon, Martin will insinuate himself further into Murphy’s family and start secretly dating Kim. Then, not long after that, young Bob loses the feeling in his legs. He’s checked into that foreboding hospital, and indeed, his condition seems dire. When the same paralysis befalls Kim, Martin informs Murphy that he’s the one who’s brought upon their pains. He tells Murphy that he blames him for the death of his dad, and he wants retribution. Thus, like Agamemnon, Murphy must wrestle with the idea that Martin proposes to even the playing field. Either he kills one of the three members of his family or Martin will ensure that they all die.
For the next half hour after that, as the two children’s paralysis worsens and the medical staff is stymied about the cause, the tension ratchets up magnificently. But then, Lathimos makes some very wrong turns with his movie. The children come home to be nursed there, and it seems more like the filmmaker’s way to get them away from others to serve the needs of his story versus sound medical decisions that the characters onscreen would likely make. Also, no one in the story ever finds out what was ailing the kids. Those aren’t necessarily deal breakers, but they are plot holes that take the audience out of the picture. Lathimos should know better, but then he lets the whole shebang slip through his fingers.
Murphy kidnaps Martin and holds him hostage in the basement and with that crazy plot point, the movie passes the point of no return. From there on, each of the characters does one ridiculous thing after another. The police are never involved. The characters become crazy violent. Other times, they act wholly namby-pamby. The paralysis continues. Kim still pines. And it all leads to a virtual game of “eeny meeny miney moe” with a rifle that would be almost laughable if it didn’t lead to the utter unraveling of what was good horror up until then.
Some critics have suggested that this story is really a metaphor, that the characters are symbolic of the fraying family unit writ large, a Greek tragedy or a dissertation on the Bible. Really? Well, that may be the director's hidden meaning in it all, but why couldn’t his film have played straighter and more cogently? Why does logic have to go so wildly by the way side in that last half hour? And why are these people at the end of it all no smarter than the fools who Jason used to slaughter with so much ease in the wretched franchise that was FRIDAY THE 13TH? When characters stop acting like logical human beings and become symbols, we in the audience stop caring.
To such things, I cry, “Boo!” And not in the way that befits this Halloween season.