Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
While the umpteenth Saw feature, Jigsaw, satiated the general public’s pre-Halloween appetite for mainstream horror, another film has been quietly making an, um, killing on the arthouse circuit. That movie is The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the latest feature from Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek filmmaker behind Dogtooth and last year’s cult hit The Lobster. Terror and dread lurked around the edges of those pictures, but Sacred Deer — which opened in theaters on Oct. 20 — can be classified as a full-on horror movie, telling the story of a picture-perfect family whose lives are destroyed by a teenage interloper with an insidious mission.
But if you ask the film’s star, Colin Farrell — who also headlined The Lobster — whether this is Lanthimos’s first dive into the horror well, he insists that it could also be viewed as a laugh-out-loud comedy. “Yorgos sees this as his Anchorman,” the Irish actor jokes to Yahoo Entertainment. “I think I was too subjected to the violence of it to find it funny, but I know that people are coming out of it finding it hilarious in parts. And they’re also having a guilt-ridden response to laughing, because there’s such serious imagery and horrific things at various stages of the story.”
The horrific things present in The Killing of a Sacred Deer play on parents’ worst fears concerning the safety of their spouses and, more importantly, their children. Years ago, prominent heart surgeon Steven Murphy (Farrell) lost a patient in the operating room, and that man’s son, Martin (Barry Keoghan), has embedded himself in Murphy’s life as a precursor to launching his revenge scheme. Through circumstances that are never explained — which heightens the horror — Martin afflicts Steven’s two children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic), with a disease that first renders them immobile, then takes away their appetite, and finally causes their eyes to bleed red, signaling their imminent demise.
Steven’s only recourse is to “balance” Martin’s loss by murdering a member of his own family — either one of his kids or his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman). “It works on a psychological as much as an emotional level, and it leaves you with questions,” Farrell says of the movie’s quietly high-stakes premise. “It’s the boogeyman that lives inside us all and it’s the terror of chance as well that plays a part. It’s not some unmentionable entity or some nonexisting beast that then you come out of the cinema and think, that’s that story. You see yourself in this world and I think that’s the thing that’s most terrifying.”
The terror culminates in an unsettling finale that audibly disturbed audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival, where we saw the movie in September. Having tried to escape his fate through other means — including kidnapping and beating Martin — Steven orchestrates an execution that leaves the victim up to chance. Escorting his family to the living room and placing pillowcases over their heads, he then picks up a rifle and spins around in a circle, eyes covered, pulling the trigger wherever and whenever he stops. While his first few shots fail to hit a target, a bullet does eventually find its way into a body, reducing the Murphy family by one. “It was pretty awful,” Kidman remembers of the prolonged shoot required for that final sequence. “It was so claustrophobic in that house. By the end we were running outside!”
Since she had a pillowcase over her head much of the time, Kidman wasn’t privy to the haunting image of Farrell spinning around and around, his rifle’s sights passing from one potential victim to another. “You only heard my footsteps, right?” Farrell asks his co-star, who nods emphatically before replying, “The drama of that! And then you hear what he does [without seeing it]. It’s like Greek drama: things happen offstage, and you hear about them onstage. We were in this kind of dream together, and went somewhere, I’m not sure where, but we all went there, and we did come back. This is earth, isn’t it?”
Kidman has some previous experience with otherworldly situations as the star of the beloved 2001 horror film, The Others. Sixteen years after its release, that box-office hit still has a devoted fan following, which chided Yahoo Entertainment for leaving it off our list of the Top 25 modern horror classics. It’s apparently a favorite of Farrell’s as well — he breaks out in effusive praise the moment we bring it up to Kidman. “That’s so f***ing good,” he raves. “Really brilliant and so affecting.” While the actress considers the gothic horror of The Others to be diametrically opposed to the chilly, clinical scares in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the two films are united in the way they depict the lengths parents will go to protect their children. “At first, this one is about protection, but it’s interesting because it then becomes about self-preservation. Those two primal instincts are operating in very, very extreme situations. You’ve gotta have horror movies based on something like that.”
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is currently playing in theaters.
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