Does a bad ending, or even merely an unsatisfying conclusion, ruin a movie? I go back and forth on this a lot, sometimes within works with the same creators and producers. I considered last year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane to be one of the best movies of the year, and I really love 98% of Super 8, both of which suffer the same issue of a tonally inappropriate ending for a movie that was thematically about something other than, you know, stupid Cloverfield monsters (in the case of the former, at least it was justified by the retitle). Both of them are movies that I recommend to others with the caveats that they are nearly perfect but fail in a major way that, depending upon your consideration of the subject, may ruin your overall filmic experience.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is one of these contentious films. I sat in the theater in a completely enraptured state watching the film’s first two hours, but in the film’s final moments, those joyous feelings turned to ashes in my mouth. My roommate walked out of the theater exultant, but I was underwhelmed. But before we get there, a quick synopsis.
Surgeon Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell) has a well-ordered and successful life, as demonstrated by the sumptuous home he shares with his loving wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their two children, fifteen-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and elementary-aged Bob (Sunny Suljic). He also has a secret and unusual relationship with teenaged Martin (Barry Keoghan), which he keeps from his family and lies about to his anesthesiologist partner Matthew (Bill Camp). He meets with the boy clandestinely at a diner and buys him gifts, ranging from simple ice cream cones to expensive watches. Stephen eventually reveals this relationship to his family, although he lies that he met Martin when the boy’s father died suddenly; in fact, Martin’s father was a longtime patient of Stephen’s, who died under mysterious circumstances. Stephen’s family falls under the influence of Martin’s charms, especially Kim, but each member of the family begins to fall victim of an inexplicable paralysis that seems to be of Martin’s devising.
There’s a lot going on in this film, and there’s so, so much to love, especially in its small moments of subtlety and intricacy. When I told him that I had seen it, Brandon asked if the film was as Kubrickian and giallo-inspired as he had heard; although the fingerprints that underline Kubrick’s influence are all over the film, there’s no real giallo influence that I can discern. I didn’t happen to catch The Lobster, but I am told that the emotional distance evident in dialogue and the lack of inflection that the actors use in Killing is a commonality with director Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous work. I’m not sure how that stylistic choice fit with his earlier film, but it’s a resounding success here, as the cold world of surgeons and diagnoses, children getting slapped (and worse), long walks with ice cream, and even awkward sexual advances are all treated with the same clinical dispassion, instilling the film with a feeling of extreme detachment that resonates in every scene. This only increases the mood of growing tension that is intentionally invoked, as the audience feels their anxiety rising like a tide while the characters observe the changes in their world and worldview with infuriatingly cold tempers.
Beyond the overt characterizations, there’s a lot of subtlety that will no doubt provoke discussion and inspection. Kim’s recent first menstruation is mentioned on two separate occasions, including once as a point of pride for Stephen when talking to his work colleagues following a formal speech; what’s to be made of that? Early in the film, Stephen and Anna engage in some slightly kinky hanky-panky (all edited and filmed with the same dispassionate camera work as every scene) in which Anna lies down inverted on the bed (with her head at the foot of the bed and vice versa) and pretends to be a patient under anesthesia; when Kim later attempts to seduce Martin, she assumes this same position, implying that she possesses a knowledge of her parents’ sex lives that is both incomplete and inappropriate. Every relationship possesses an animalistic charge but lacks intimacy, except for Stephen’s mentorship (for lack of a better word) of Martin, which is initially framed as potentially sexual and abusive but ultimately proves to be something equally primal but much, much worse. It’s not absent from the film, however: after foiling an unsuccessful seduction attempt on the part of Martin’s mother (one scene wonder Alicia Silverstone), Stephen later returns to their home in a rage when Martin’s true intentions are revealed, and he threatens/promises to “fuck [Martin] and [his] mother, like [Martin] want[s],” so he is at the very least aware of this tension and how it could appear, but his understanding of the motives are all wrong.
It’s the small moments in which this film proves its great worth, but paradoxically that same sparsity and minimalism in its ending left me unsatisfied as the credits started to roll. Even if you don’t make the immediate connection to the myth of Iphigenia, which is mentioned overtly in a scene wherein Stephen meets his children’s principal to investigate possible causes of their bizarre malady, the phrase “sacred deer” is bound to ping some mental connections for anyone with a familiarity to Greek mythology. Even with that knowledge, there is still an expectation for some kind of explanation for Martin’s apparently supernatural abilities, which never comes. This absence is less disappointing than one would expect, but the film still feels somehow incomplete in its final moments. Perhaps that was intentional; perhaps the evocation of feelings of incompleteness (not necessarily dissatisfaction) was the point of the film as a whole. I’d have to give it another viewing before I could say for sure, but for now, I’m left as cold as the icy blues of the film’s color aesthetic and Kidman’s eyes, although the buoyancy of the film’s choices before its final frames lifts my overall estimation.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond