“Da-aaad! Bob’s dying!!!”
Cue medium close-up of child in a wheelchair, eyes dripping red as he stares blankly on.
Gallows humor takes many forms, but perhaps none so Pantone black as kiddos bleeding from the eyes from a sudden, undiagnosable ailment — least of all moon-faced American boys named “Bob.” Of course, nothing should really shock us coming from Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek equivalent of Lars Von Trier (sans, perhaps, the joyless misogyny). From an adult sibling knocking out her “dogtooth” with a hand weight to a sibling-turned-dog kicked to death by a sociopathic vixen, Lanthimos’s raison d’être seems to be inventing new ways to disgust and disquiet.
Spoiler: little “Bob” indeed perishes in the director’s latest feature, Killing of a Sacred Deer. And it definitely isn’t pretty. In a film that doles out justice so mercilessly it can only be called … Greek, Killing is cruel enough to boil his 2016 The Lobster alive. But what balances the horror is a signature deadpan that dulls any stabbing pathos. Ten-year-old Bob (Sunny Suljic), his teenage sister Kim (Raffey Cassidy, also suddenly stricken by a mysterious disease in which she can’t move any part of her body below the waist), mom (Nicole Kidman) and, perhaps most importantly, dad (Colin Farrell) are the paragon of success, but they’re also a joke of a nuclear family. Read allegorically, as the title and smattering of references to the myth of Iphigenia surely encourage, Killing of a Sacred Deer isn’t so much a horror film as it is a film lampooning the wretchedness of patriarchal hubris.
And that’s where Lanthimos is at his best: emasculating alpha male Colin Farrell with comically tragic results.
In The Lobster (Farrell famously gained 45 pounds to play its lead, David), an especially memorable shot features Farrell slumped back in a white robe, awaiting his demise as a “loner,” or single person, if he doesn’t partner up in 45 days. The robe opens at his chest, revealing a pale, unflattering paunch, about which his hands cross stiffly as though girding his loins.
A similar shot appears about two thirds of the way through Killing of a Sacred Deer: a bit less schlubby (and boasting a Black Forest of a beard), Farrell leans forward, shirtless, in a corner chair and contemplates his epic dilemma. This time around, instead of potentially forfeiting his human physiognomy (“loners” in The Lobster become animals “of their choice” if single too long), Farrell’s character Steven plays a cardiothoracic surgeon whose children are suddenly — and incurably — dying, the irony being, of course, that no amount of medical training can help one bit, and that he is to blame for all of it.
If David is an earnest, if waffling, fellow, Steven is an asshole of a husband and father. What they share in common is a powerlessness totally at odds with Farrell’s alpha males of yore. It’s as though Lanthimos is mocking the entire enterprise of square-jawed, broad-shouldered assuredness — arguably on its own worth the price of admission and squeam-inducing bloodshed.
At one point early on, Steven shows off his hairy chest and underarms at the behest of Martin (Barry Keoghan), the creepy teenage boy who mysteriously turns up at his hospital one day, and ultimately becomes the curse of the whole family’s existence. “Okay, you do have more hair than I do, but not three times more,” says Martin, clearly underwhelmed by the armpit display. In Killing, body hair is but one metonym for pointless virility, along with the more abstract signifiers of authority and affluence.
“Do you realize, Steven, we’re in this situation because of you?” seethes Anna, whose resentment for her husband’s moral fuck-up offers some peak Kidman frost. Martin’s father died on the operating table — ostensibly under Steven’s neglect — so (naturally!) “the closest thing to justice” would be Steven’s offspring literally falling out from under him.
But to hear Steven tell it, “a surgeon never kills a patient. An anaesthesiologist can kill a patient, but a surgeon never can.” Of course, the balding anaesthesiologist attending the surgery makes the exact same argument — right before accepting a lusterless hand job from Anna in the hospital parking garage. Male desire — and passive lack of accountability — go hand in awkward hand. And of course, they suffer dearly for it.
“Steven has an arrogance,” said Farrell in an interview with CBC radio, “this perfect life that he’s incredibly proud of: the perfect wife, the perfect career, the perfect children. But he’s a party to something so violent in its tragedy that karma decides it’s time for his life to be torn apart.”
With the press, the actor seems confident, self-deprecating, a gesticulator whether philosophizing or having a laugh. Meanwhile his Lanthimos Losers are stolid, severe, too ignorant or aloof to pity themselves appropriately. As Farrell puts it, “[Steven] is living his version of the American dream, and that dream bit by bit gets torn apart, shattered.” By proxy, Killing can be seen not only to skewer masculine agency, but a type specifically American in its sweep and level of delusion. Within the outsized, often abject, horror of the film, there’s a trace of Richard Yates’s suburban downfall for the man who seemingly has it all.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is playing now in wide release.