Essays · Movies

What Makes ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ So Hard to Watch

An exploration of a very good movie that’s also a very uncomfortable viewing experience.
The Killing Of A Sacred Deer X
By  · Published on November 16th, 2017

Is The Killing of a Sacred Deer a great film?

Yes, I think it probably is.

Did I enjoy watching it?

I didn’t.

Yorgos Lanthimos, the film’s director and co-writer, has a glaringly specific style. The Killing of Sacred Deer opens with an extended shot of open-heart surgery that, to be fair, could be just as at home in Lars von Trier’s hands. But soon it cuts to Colin Farrell and Bill Camp swapping quick deadpan facts about the watches they’ve bought and are thinking about buying.

And fans of Lanthimos know they’re home.

Killing Of A Sacred Deer Colin Farrell

Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell)

Last year with The Lobster, Lanthimos became known worldwide for the strange, emotionless expression of his characters. It’s distinctive, and a little off-putting, and it certainly does not a blockbuster make.

But I loved The Lobster. I also loved his 2009 Greek-language film Dogtooth, which exhibits much the same acting style. So what’s different this time around?

It’s all down to space — space to recognize, space to move.

And this is a funny thing because both The Lobster and Dogtooth take place in confined areas — whether a resort or a childhood home, the protagonists find themselves in places they’re not allowed to leave. In Sacred Deer, Colin Farrell’s Steven has complete freedom of mobility, but he becomes ultimately more confined by a ticking clock. And, of course, by his children’s literal inability to move.

This causes the panic to set in. Despite his money and power and ostensible freedom of movement, Steven is pinned down first by a dark secret and soon by an impossible choice. The film is pervaded by a constant sense of dread and impending violence.

And what’s worse, the space Steven is stuck in is so familiar.

The Lobster is set in a clear dystopia, a blunt judgment on societal pressure made an alternate reality. And Dogtooth takes place in a miniature dystopia, a microcosm of a world a couple makes out of their home, the only place their adult children have ever known. Both films set themselves apart from our own world, and they find joy and even comedy in the differences. Both are, in their own way, profoundly funny.

Not so with Sacred Deer. 

Despite everyone’s bizarre way of talking, Steven and his family seem to inhabit a world very much like our own. Chores need to be done. Dinners need to be attended. Groundhog Day needs to be watched.

But, as it turns out, Groundhog Day really needs to be watched.

Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), Martin (Barry Keoghan)

Because, as it’s revealed well into the film, Martin (Barry Keoghan) is more than just a very strange teenager. He is, essentially, a god. The title of the film is a direct reference to the Greek myth of Iphigenia, in which Agamemnon inadvertently kills the Goddess Artemis’ sacred deer. In retaliation, she demands the sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia.

After Steven accidentally kills Martin’s father on the operating table, Martin demands constant tribute. When Steven gets uncomfortable and the tribute runs out, Martin demands the sacrifice of one of his family members. It’s a story that could take place in our world, with Martin controlling Steven through blackmail or guilt. For a good chunk of the film, we’re led to believe that’s all it is.

And then Steven’s son Bob (Sunny Suljic) loses control of his legs. And refuses to eat. And bleeds from his eyes.

A lot of the joy in Sacred Deer‘s predecessors comes from the unfamiliarity of their settings. As we learn how dangerous it is to choke if you’re single, or listen to Frank Sinatra “translated” into Greek, we laugh at the ways these films’ worlds are unlike our own. In Sacred Deer, the unfamiliarity is kept at bay until it comes barreling in with panic and violence and helplessness in the face of an unmovable force.

Martin (Barry Keoghan)

The back end of the film is pure agony. I somehow felt less anxiety waiting for Steven to choose than I did waiting for Nicole Kidman to fall. And the end is a misery-inducing lesson in futility and arbitrariness.

Does this make a good film? Yes, I think it does. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a masterpiece of discomfort, an ancient myth finely tuned to an uncaring present. It’s wonderfully made.

But I’m never watching it again.

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Liz Baessler is a frequent contributor and infrequent columnist at Film School Rejects. She has an MA in English and a lot of time on her hands. (She/Her)