Director Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” belongs in a genre that is sadly barren in film history: medical horror. It is important to draw a distinction between this and body horror. Body horror gets its scares from the utter disgust the audience feels looking at a character transform into a monster. Medical horror draws on the feeling of violation and confusion that many of us feel during a medical procedure. Lanthimos has successfully captured all my fears of hospitals and combined them with his trademark bleak, absurdist style and a deeply compelling family drama. The result is, without a doubt, the creepiest movie in a long time.
It’s best to go into this movie blind. I watched the deliberately ambiguous trailers because I’m an impatient film lover, but avoided knowing anything about the plot besides that Colin Farrell plays a surgeon and Nicole Kidman plays his wife. They both do incredible work here. It’s refreshing to watch a performance as subtle as Farrell’s; his character rarely shows emotion in any visible way, even when committing horrible acts. But we can see in his eyes all the abject terror and confusion that we — the audience — needs. It’s really impressive to see, and it grounds the surreal shocking dialogue.
Kidman, on the other hand, fully embraces the iciness and madness of life in a Lanthimos film. I was reminded of her performance in “Eyes Wide Shut,” where she played the wife of another emotionally repressed doctor. In both that film and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” she functions to humble the doctor, especially after events take a turn for the macabre and mysterious. It’s captivating. Like Farrell, she isn’t given many scenes of emotion, but instead she seems to seethe resentment at her ineffectual husband. It is deeply uncomfortable to watch.
The whole movie is tough to watch, but that’s because it’s so very funny. The bizarre, stilted dialogue and darkly screwball scenarios the characters create can only be met with laughter. It’s not gut-laughs or any kind of fun laughter; the laughter is desperate. Without it, we wouldn’t know what to do with such a twisted movie. A movie has to be made very sharply to have this effect, but when it is, it’s such a pleasure. “Sacred Deer” plays the audience like a violin. From it’s opening shot of a close-up on open heart surgery, this film has confidence that most others could only dream of. I was so bowled over by the experience of being expertly manipulated that I couldn’t really analyze the film. It has been a very long time since a movie had that capability.
“Sacred Deer” is not an easy movie. It requires a lot from it’s audience. It’s weird, it seems like it’s making fun of you and it’s often gruesomely shocking and heart stoppingly suspenseful. But unlike many difficult films, the effort is worth it. The whole thing is so devilishly clever that it leaves you excited rather than drained. I can’t wait to watch it again, either this awards season or in many years, when film teachers will surely show it in their classes. It is a movie that stays with you long after the credits roll.
Featured Photo: Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman stun in the delightfully creepy “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” A24.