Written by: Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou. Directed: by Lanthimos
Horror movies have been a major source of cinematic innovation in the past few years. Previously on this blog I’ve written about the trends of highbrow horror, and conscientious horror. There was also A Ghost Story, which if we need such labels can be called post-horror. In the last few months of 2017, however, a number of films have been captivating via a trend I can only describe as “thorough horror.”
The first of these films was It. I went in expecting a plot centred around a gory clown. What I was in fact treated to was a story of kids in a small town with varying degrees of abusive parents, and frighteningly merciless school bullies (the clown was there too).
Next came Mother! This film differed from It, as rather than subjecting its protagonists to different sources of horror, Mother!’s horror was all connected. What stands out about Mother!, however is the ambition of its plot cycle. It starts out looking like an indie movie before its budget explodes, and its protagonist is subject to ever-increasing levels of chaos and gore.
Now there is Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a work that combines Javier Bardem’s eery style of acting from Mother! with the multiple-villain dynamic of It to produce a horror that is both thoroughly encapsulating and awkwardly mysterious.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer opens with a scene of open heart surgery. It is beautifully shot, yet I’m sure I speak for most readers when I say it is also disgusting. The vegetarian in me also squirmed in a later scene when a character is seen chopping up a full-bodied fish-corpse for a barbeque. Both of these moments are shot in plain goriness, yet neither is directly connected to the horror that the film comes to be about. In this way The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a not just a horror film but a mystery: a mystery that is not so much a whodunit, but a “what exactly was the doing”?
The Killing of the Sacred Deer is not just a mystery for its audience, it was a mystery for its performers. According to Colin Farrel, who stars as Dr. Steven Murphy Lanthimos refused to answer actor questions about how to act. The result is that Farrell plays a character who often speaks with an awkward nonchalantness (Rest assured this is a strength, not a criticism of Farrell’s acting), in addition to having incredibly awkward lines, for example, randomly mentioning in a conversation that his daughter has started menstruating.
Lanthimos made a name for himself with his 2016 effort, The Lobster, a similarly offbeat and gruesome film, in which Farrell acted in a similar manner. The Killing of a Sacred Deer, for all its bizarre lines, however, is ultimately a more conventional and satisfying film than The Lobster, as it does have a unifying plot which reaches a satisfying, though unsettling conclusion. The Killing of a Sacred Deer could have just been an art film: an experimentation in alt horror, in which every character acts weirdly. The brilliance of Lanthimos’ thorough horror, however, is that he manages to introduce a number of absurd levels of horror and still ties them all together at the end. The film ends with poetic injustice, and a gory “joke” about the relationship between french fries and a murder.
Horror movies are satisfying as they often have plot twist: “ah ha!” moments that give them character. The brilliance of thorough horror, is that an “ah hah!” moment feels particularly amazing when it comes at the end of an ambitious and twisted script. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is not for everyone, but it is an intelligible yet mysterious work that helps establish its writer-director as one of the great voices of this era in cinema.