Spiritual prequel to ‘Poor Things’ — ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’

Spiritual prequel to ‘Poor Things’ — ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’

Why Yorgos Lanthinos’ 2017 film may lead the next great double feature.

A Kubrickian meditation on responsibility and disaffection, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a cross between The Shining and Hereditary, of a surrealist realism that finds a near-mythic prankster circling every protagonist. 

Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrel) strikes a strange relationship with precocious teen Martin Lang (Barry Keoghan). Meeting Murphy’s family, Martin begins to ingratiate himself just as untimely illness suddenly befalls the Murphy children. To Dr. Murphy and his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), Martin’s presence begins to feel more than coincidental. 

Saltburn star Barry Keoghan landed Matt Reeves’ open Joker slot in no small part due to the simplistic psychopathy he neatly perfects in Deer. Using Keoghan’s open-mouthed idiocy to obstruct, director Yorgos Lanthinos withholds catharsis and conclusion here just as he did in 2015’s The Lobster, another collaboration with the consistently brilliant Colin Farrell. Nicole Kidman is also in top form, reprising the same reserved but righteous female figure she formed in the first season of Big Little Lies

Lanthinos’ 2023 success Poor Things, at once brazenly assured and targeted, is still the more realized work, deserving of its soon-to-come run on the awards circuit. Audiences will find its purpose more accessible and entertaining than his earlier efforts, but Deer is a Shining homage worthy of the tag. Lanthinos’ even rides the steadicam during dizzying sequences in hospital halls.

The once novel technology made famous in Golden-age, gilded horror like The Shining and The Changeling appears here as its own character once again. Lanthinos’ regression into the tech is purposefully imperfect; he lets the bumps be, rather than favoring a smooth, modern gimbal’s framing. Through the resulting nausea and against a jagged score, the 20/20 claustrophobia Kubrick once twisted into focus so expertly in 1980 suddenly manifests on a Netflix horror flick, as if out of thin modern air — a neat trick for Lanthinos’ starting act that we’re just now seeing crescendo. 

There are elements in The Killing of a Sacred Deer that, without the more definitive Poor Things with which to pair, read as exploitative — but latecomers already familiar with that film’s fiftieth-wave feminism may be considerably less concerned. Deer, like Poor Things and The Lobster, explores a thematically parallel body horror vivid enough to make you shift. The cause in both is the same grayscale of institutional male ineptitude, postured stiff and brittle.

Lanthinos’ cleverly keeps blood red at bay, so that when it does hit, the violence erupts upward and ‘out’ of the cinematography as if it exists both apart and close. The paralysis is literal for some characters and will no doubt elicit more than a few nervous limb checks, to make sure that you too hadn’t been unceremoniously cast into Keoghan’s thick, clotting mud on a Tuesday night stream.

The gurgle presages the bombastic blast that is Poor Things‘ Dionysian color, situating The Killing of a Sacred Deer as the first half in one of the more challenging double-feature spectacles of the century so far.

Ryan Derenberger is a freelance journalist and editor, a Journalism and AP Language teacher at Whitman HS in Bethesda, MD, and the founder of 'The Idea Sift.' He also serves on the board of directors for student journalism nonprofit 'Kidizenship.'