The Killing of a Sacred Deer begins with one of the most arresting images I’ve ever seen at the cinema – a human heart, exposed, pulsing, being operated upon by a surgeon. This is scored by Schubert’s settling of the “Stabat Mater,” a 13th century hymn to Mary, Jesus’s mother, which memorializes her suffering as her son was crucified. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a vivified human heart before. They are usually removed and inert or made of plastic. I’ve certainly never seen one enveloped in Schubert, cast as an icon on a cathedral wall, one heart as all hearts, the resolute tick-tock that demarcates the living from the dead. There is much less blood than I would have imagined, but I suppose that’s because the blood is inside the muscle.
And then there are hands wielding scalpels and gauze and forceps and sutures, pushing on the heart, prodding the heart, ostensibly saving the heart, but all from a remove made possible by blue polyurethane gloves. I realize the gloves make this procedure sanitary, protect the exposed heart from infection, but it also feels too clinical. This is the Heart! Life! Lives! If it must be touched, it should be touched only by soft, sensitive, loving hands. Flesh to flesh or, better, spirit to spirit.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer never again approaches this level of audio-visual majesty.
The rest of the film is fine, and it certainly continues to explore the themes evoked by that opening image, but it is never again as iconographic as that opening image. How could it be?
The film’s plot follows those hands wielding the scalpel in that opening sequence. They belong to Steven Murphy (Colin Ferrell), a heart surgeon and a good man trying to live a good life with his family. He may be a little bored – it’s one of the first things we learn about him, actually – and the disaffected monotone that infects almost every character’s speech in this film reflects this. One character’s speech and actions are not so anesthetized – Martin (Barry Keoghan), a teenage boy Steven is meeting with, apparently with some regularity. Martin can’t seem to help saying and doing everything he is thinking and feeling. Martin is dissociated from this mundane reality presented to us. We do not know why until much later in the film.
Withholding this information from the audience in the first act of the film coupled with a idiosyncratic bedroom scene between Steven and his wife, Anne (Nicole Kidman), injects some mystery into the plot regarding Steven’s character. Concern about Steven’s sexual proclivities are a red herring. What really matters is whether or not he is a good man, what makes him good, and, cosmically (Catholically?), whether or not it is possible to be “good” as a human being in this world. “Original sin,” and whatnot. Christian imagery abounds in this film, but my favorite is of Nicole Kidman’s pseudo-Mary watering her garden at night by sorrowfully standing in the center of it, like you do, smoking a cigarette, ruing her marriage and the suffering it has wrought on her and her children.
Pitting hubris as modern medical science against a universal moral order isn’t necessarily a new story—The Exorcist is an apt partner for this film if you want to go deeper down the horror hole—but few filmmakers are willing or able to do it with such off-kilter, fretful verve. There is something intentionally “off” about Yorgos Lanthimos’ films’ atmosphere. He seems to recognize the absurd irony inherent in life. Case in point, he has one character’s crisis come as she is singing “The Carol of the Bells,” a song about “throw(ing) cares away” set to the most anxious tempo imaginable.
Lanthimos’s films feel like what would happen if Stanley Kubrick directed a Krzysztof Kieslowski screenplay and stuck to the script as closely as possible. Or, if you prefer the cineplex to the art house, substitute Denis Villeneuve and the Coen brothers in the preceding sentence, respectively, though that would imply too much interest (any at all) in pleasing the crowd. Lanthimos’ peculiar, tar-black, melancholic, moral ruminations resonate with me. It’s like Peanuts without the laugh-track. I, too, find “The Carol of the Bells” to be a deeply disquieting song.