Mary Kay McBrayer
"WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO WITH THIS?" // THOUGHTS ON YORGOS LANTHIMOS' KILLING OF A SACRED DEER.
I try really hard not to shit on anybody else's art because "good" isn't determined by what I like and don't like. That said, I also tried really hard to like Yorgos Lanthimos' new horror move The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
They say I should have known what I was getting myself into before I even started watching it, so I'll go ahead and disclaim this: I haven't seen any of Lanthimos' other movies, unless you count the muted section of The Lobster that I watched at the barcade Joystick one Tuesday night last winter break, which I don't. I don't count it because even then I was like, Let me close my tab and then get the fuck out of here. So I guess I should have known better than to expect I might like this movie, but I like to give the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes. Probably, I should be more discerning of who deserves that.
Basically, I know that The Killing of a Sacred Deer is "good"--this I know from the many reviews that I read after watching it, hoping for the reveal of some insight that would make me realize, "Oh shit, wait, that is brilliant." Plus I paid eleven dollars so damn it I'm gonna stick it out even if this was the first time in recorded history that Colin Farrell was actually unattractive to me--normally I can get past his shitty behavior because, you know, I have deep-seated issues about men with perverse morality or whatever and plus he has that face... but even I couldn't get past the character this time.
I won't repeat verbatim what all the big-time movie reviews say (because 1, you can read those yourself and 2, I'm trying to have original thought here), but here are the parts of what they say that I could mostly get behind:
1. It's funny. Kind of. In a really macabre way that doesn't make you laugh.
2. It's Greek. In all the ways.
3. It makes you think.
So, let's start with elements of humor. Almost all of them come from the flat delivery. When I say flat, I mean TOTAL FUCKING DEADPAN. I mean, silent-movie-clown deadpan.
Which shouldn't probably be funny. Nothing irritates me more than an immature audience who laughs aloud when human emotion presents itself on screen, but it seemed like that's exactly what the makers wanted. Personally, I think those kinds of laughs are cheap, so I don't give them. Essentially, I am the stereotypical French person in the back of the theater smoking and saying, "Oh. I see what you did there," instead of actually laughing. I get it, okay? But let me tell you something about me that you might not know: I laugh at funny shit. These "jokes," if you can call them that," they require extra thought but expect a spontaneous response, and that is counterintuitive cognition that I think is cheap. Like puns, kind of.
Maybe the dialogue was supposed to be funny. I don't know. I know that it didn't make me laugh personally because nothing is worse than saying something that's not supposed to be funny and getting a big laugh. I do know, however, that when the little boy says to Martin, our antihero (kind of?), "Can I see the hair under your arms?" the whole theater gave a theater uncomfortably. Because... what the fuck? I mean, it's totally a thing that a little boy would ask a teenager, but a kid wouldn't deliver it like that... he wouldn't go dead in the eyes and flare his nostrils and say to an acquaintance....
Which I guess is the point, because then Kim, the teenage sister, says--again, in total deadpan--"You have a great body," and the theater laughed again. Meanwhile I'm thinking... why is everyone talking like this? What's the point?
I asked my students, and one who studies Classical theater said, "That's VERY Greek."
I think they meant it in an Ancient-Greek-drama sense, which then clicked for me a little, but still, why remove me from that drama? Why not let me experience it as though I'm in the scene? Don't you want me to feel? Isn't that the point of art? To inspire in its viewers some sort of emotional reaction?
Well. I think so. Or at least, that's the point of MY art. (Did you know that I'm writing a novel about America's first female serial killer? If/when you read it, you better feel some type of way about it or I'm a total fucking failure.) Still, I'd like to reiterate: just because I don't like something doesn't mean it's not good. I know that. Believe me, there are plenty of good people out there who I just don't like, so of course there can be good art that I don't like.
But I also want to express my disappointment, which, as an American, I am entitled to do even if it's totally un-fucking-founded and stupid. I obviously don't think it is, But if it is stupid, or if you think so, I'm sure you'll tell me. Anyway.
What I thought about these characters was MEAN, y'all: delivery of the dialogue in The Killing of a Sacred Deer seems to mock communication disparity and lack of emotion, and I don't understand the point of doing it.
The only reason I could come up with is that thing my student said: it's traditional. This is a Greek drama, and that's what they did in Ancient Greece. They were (more or less) reciting an epic poem from an oral tradition, so it sounded dry, I guess. I mean, when was the last time you read an epic poem for fun? Ugh, the whole aesthetic just seemed real art-for-art's-sake to me. Which, after the VERY first time the VERY first artist did it has just sounded like a cop-out. I mean, was it a cool idea? Sure. Does it pack the same punch every time? Nope--I already heard that joke.
[spoilers start here]
I keep on and on about the dialogue because THAT ALONE WOULD HAVE STOPPED ME FROM SEEING IT, HAD I BUT KNOWN, but there's of course more to the film. It took what seemed like forever for the inciting incident to occur in the move--again, to me. All the reviews I've read were really encouraging, but the plot was too dismal too soon for me to feel anything from it. Halfway (I'm guessing halfway, because the last half seemed way shorter than the first half) we find out that Martin, the teenage son, has cursed (I guess cursed?) Steven, Colin Farrel's character. Steven, by the way, is a surgeon, so it makes sense that he speaks in extremely literal verbiage--hell, most scientists do, if we're being honest, which I (almost) always am.
The exposition takes forever, but here's the gist: Martin is uncomfortably close to Steven and way too comfortable with being too close. Steven backpedals away from Martin, whom he pitied, after he tries to set him up with his mom. After an hour of that very slightly rising action, we find out that a long time ago, after a couple drinks, Steven operated on Martin's dad and Martin's dad died on the operating table. So it's a vendetta story.
Y'all, I LOVE revenge fantasies, though! Just like Mindy Kaling says, revenge fantasies are the ONLY thing that gets me to exercise. I just imagine I'm in the fitness-montage of an awesome movie that Ashley Judd wasn't available for, so they cast me, her darker, chubbier twin--yes I did say I was Ashley Judd's "twin." Can you just let me have this, please!
So, the thing is that somehow Martin has cursed the family. We don't find out till... I don't know, forever into it--which is, I guess, the best way to get revenge. Slowly and patiently, dragging it out so that you can savor the displeasure it's causing the person who offended you. it so that because Steven killed a member of Martin's family, now he has to kill a member of his own family.
By the way--and I know I'm beating a dead horse at this point but that's how I felt about the delivery during the WHOLE movie: enough already! damn! we get it!--Martin lays out the parameters in a very clear, demented, precise, apathetic way: first they'll lose ability to use their appendages, then they'll reject food, then they will bleed from the eyes, and within a few hours they'll die. "There," he says, a little winded, "I said it as quickly as possible." It's so dry that he used an adverb in his dialogue. NO ONE DOES THAT. I don't even do that. The only adverb that is usable in normal language without sounding like you live inside a formulaic romance novel is "well," and even then people will look at you like you're bougy af. I did not even look up how to spell "bougy." I know it from Migos.
Long story shorter: No Bond-villain soliloquy for Martin, y'all.
Two interesting things happen during the second half of the movie, but neither of them really leads to anywhere or anything which was the truest depiction of my disappointment.
Picture me with half-mast eyelids watching the bland white movie screen as children drag themselves with their hands absurdly from room to room, appealing to their father, "It would be an honor to die for you," and "I'm going to water the plants now," in a total schmoozy bullshit manner, and then all of the sudden Steven goes downstairs where HE HAS MARTIN DUCT TAPED AND BEAT UP.
Yeah, that woke my ass up, too! Alright Mister Anesthetic-Fetishist, that's right, take your destiny into your own "beautiful" hands! And then as he's reaching over, Martin bites a big ass piece of meat out of Steven's forearm. He screams and stuff.
Then, Martin takes a huge bite out of his own arm. His own fucking arm! While the blood drips down his chin, he says, "Do you understand? It’s a metaphor. It’s symbolic.”
At that point, I was like, YES. It is heating UP in this bitch!
But then it calms down immediately because nothing happens. It's a red herring plot point, and it's infuriating.
Honestly, this movie embodied a LOT of what I felt while I was being forced to read The Odyssey and Oedipus Rex: you're a warrior, you son of a bitch. Listen to me, you little son of a bitch. You need to cowboy the fuck up and show that curse who's boss, okay? (Slap 'em on the ass, send 'em back out into the field.)
Note: I did not feel that way during Euripedes' Medea. Talk about overcorrection.
While Steven is trying to make a decision, Anna (Steven's husband, played by the incredible Nicole Kidman) curls up naked next to him and says, "It seems like the best thing to do would be to kill a child." Now, while she IS taking matters into her own hands, it is also not her decision to make, and it's a clear stride toward self-preservation. Not only can a naked Nicole Kidman make just about anybody do anything probably, but she's also playing into his fetish and totally ignoring the fact that his negligence got a boy's father killed and now he's doing his penance. She's trying to save herself. Which is VERY UNLIKE ALL ANCIENT GREEK WOMEN. Wives punish. Daughters are sacrificed.
So I thought some on it. Why would you be warping these archetypes, Lanthimos? To what end?
Y'all remember having to read Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis in high school? The one where he wakes up as a giant beetle and he wonders how he's going to get to work and why his alarm clock didn't wake him up? Well, I was among the readers who stared at the page and re-read the first paragraph four or five times because SURELY WAKING UP AS A BEETLE IS UPSETTING.
Similarly: SURELY HAVING TO KILL SOMEONE IN YOUR FAMILY IS UPSETTING. Surely you want to DO something about it. Surely you felt some remorse at having killed another child's father in the first place... but no, of course he didn't, because according to the film, "A surgeon can never kill a patient. An anesthesiologist can kill a patient, but a surgeon never can."
YAH, YOU CAN, SON. People can kill other humans. I guess it's not that hard. It happens by accident literally all the time. I will forever be jealous and horrified of mediocre white dudes' confidence: someone just died under his "beautiful" hands and immediately he's like, Nope, not my fault, can't be, I'm not capable of anything but perfection. Totally infallible.
Meanwhile, Ashley Judd's chubby brown twin is over here internalizing the slightest decision--"Should I have not asked for my spare key back? I should have just made a copy and let him keep it. STUPID STUPID STUPID"--while stress-eating CookOut and wondering how much weight you can actually gain in a twenty-four hour period. OH WHAT I COULD DO WITH AN OUNCE OF A MEDIOCRE WHITE MAN'S CONFIDENCE.
Steven, however, don't do a damn thing. He just submits to the curse, which is weird, because in MY readings of Greek myths involving prophecies, it's the attempted PREVENTION of them that makes them go into effect. I guess the prophets really depend on that hubris.
What Steven actually does, in total lack-of-responsibility directly proportionate to the unbelievable hubris he's shown so far, is he puts pillowcases over all his family's heads, ties them up in the livingroom, and then runs in a literal circle around himself, blindfolded, and shoots, hoping to kill one of his family. Which, ultimately, he does. It's the one who is the sickest, which makes the most sense, I guess.
Maybe I'm just having a hard time rectifying the idea of logic with emotion. I don't understand how he feels no emotions yet can't murder one of his own family. Or maybe that's the whole sociopath thing: they have emotions, they just don't think that other people feel emotions the way that they do. Could it be just another toxic masculinity thing, in which men can't show faults or emotions because it's weak or whatever the fuck? Sure. But my point is that I didn't know what I was supposed to feel because I didn't feel anything except frustration: You a beetle, man. Get mad about it.