Disclaimer: this article contains spoilers about the movies Mother! and The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
In the Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ limp follow-up to The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the children of a doting mother, Anna, (Nicole Kidman) and surgeon father, Steven, (Colin Farrell) become plagued by a mysterious illness.
First, their legs stop working; then, they refuse to eat. Eventually, it’s revealed that a psychologically disturbed 16-year-old boy, whose father died on Steven’s operating table, has, out of some mistaken sense of moral justice, cast a sort of spell on Steven’s family: unless Steven kills one of his family members himself, they will all die a slow death. Aware of the situation, and with time running out, Anna and her two kids—Bob, the youngest, and Kim, the teenager—campaign to the patriarch for their survival. Faced with this Sophie’s Choice, Steven resorts to seating his two children and his wife around their living room, pulling a hat over his eyes, spinning around with a shotgun in hand, stopping randomly and shooting whichever of his loved ones happens to be in his path.
It’s an unsettling scene, to say the least. And yet it pales in comparison to the climax of Darren Aronofksy’s divisive film from earlier this year, Mother!, during which Jennifer Lawrence’s character watches her newborn’s head snap while crowd-surfing over a phalanx of revelers who worship her husband’s poetry (and subsequently decide it’s okay to literally eat the dead baby).
Aronofsky’s is the far more interesting film, a movie chock-full of biblical references that ramps up the tension at a ludicrous pace. It was genuinely shocking, if not a bit confused, buoyed by out-there performances from Michelle Pfeiffer and Lawrence. Lanthimos’s, on the other hand, is a cold, boring slog. His characters, who are rendered with purposefully uninteresting dialogue and brought to life with a sort of robotic, non-acting, are sapped of any quality that would make them human. Nonetheless, Lanthimos insists on pushing them into corners that force them to question their own humanity. The result is a movie that operates on the pretense of being about something deep but is, in actuality, nothing more than a shallow thought experiment. Which would be okay—if it were a horror film. But The Killing of a Sacred Deer is treated with such dry self-seriousness that it asphyxiates any element that could've been construed as camp. If Mother! is about far too much, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is about far too little. And if Aronofsky is heavy-handed, he is at least aware of it; Lanthimos seems endlessly enamored by his own cleverness. (It's worth nothing, in this sense, that both movies are hardly more than a change-in-score away from being dark comedies—The Killing of a Sacred Deer, especially.)
Regardless of what you make of their latest films, Aronofsky and Lanthimos are both quote-unquote “serious” artists with a generous helping of cultural clout amongst the cognoscenti. Their films have played the international festival circuit. They are, if not adored by critics, then respected by them. They have both been nominated for Oscars —Aronofsky for Best Director for Black Swan, and Lanthimos for Best Foreign Film for Dogtooth, and Best Original Screenplay for The Lobster. And, in 2017, they were responsible for creating the two most disturbing scenes of the year, both of which subjected a mother to watch as her husband—either tacitly or explicitly—killed her child.
To suggest this is anything more than a coincidence would be irresponsible. But movies don’t exist in a vacuum, either. Like any piece of art, they are in constant dialogue with the world from which they came (and in which they continue to exist). What, then, might these two scenes elucidate about the state of the culture in 2017?
One answer here is that it speaks to a perhaps outmoded view of the patriarchy, a word whose literal definition belongs to the realm of the family but which has come to represent our society’s male hegemonies. Mother! and The Killing of a Sacred Deer both deal with archetypical families: Aronofsky’s, with a Him and Her, a sacrificial newborn and an Edenic setting, is biblical; Lanthimos’s, with its portrait of an upper-middle class white couple, plus one son and one daughter, is nuclear. Mother! plays like an allegory, about any number of things—climate change, the maleficence of celebrity culture and, finally, a patriarchy that exploits, uses and disposes of women. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is, ultimately, a parable about justice—an eye for an eye, a life for a life—wrapped up in a tragic story of classic male hubris; after all, Steven, the surgeon, might’ve been drunk while operating on the father of the boy who ultimately brings the plague upon his family.
The primary conclusion one reaches at the end of both films is that men suck—like, really suck. Consequently, that’s the same conclusion one reaches as we near the end of 2017, during what has become a groundbreaking moment in time for victims of sexual harassment and assault. What’s different about these films is that there is no justice for the women. Jennifer Lawrence’s character dies, while her husband continues to quite literally live like a God. Nicole Kidman’s character appears to go on living her life, with ostensibly no desire to leave the man who got her family into this mess and failed to get them out. (To be clear, the movie ends soon after the traumatic death of her son; still, Anna is relatively inert for most of the film. In the bedroom, she and Steven enact a strange sexual fetish where she plays anesthetized while he has sex with her. Amidst the recent wave of allegations, particularly those involving men who get off masturbating in front of women, this fetish feels weirdly on-the-nose.)
It would be unfair to suggest these particular artistic choices are in any substantive way reflective of either director’s politics. But there is something uniquely distressing about the severely disturbing acts that Jennifer Lawrence in Mother!, and to a lesser extent, Nicole Kidman, in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, are made to witness—particularly because the movies seem to suggest that even acts as disturbing as these don’t result in any real change. Both films, in their own way, end up returning to a certain status quo. Viewed in the context of our current cultural moment, that’s pretty bleak.
And yet, it is an outlook that is beginning to bear less resemblance to reality. The status quo seems to be changing, one #metoo at a time. The increasingly disturbing actions and incompetency of men in power—the patriarchy one might say is represented (and hyperbolized) in Aronofsky and Lanthimos’s latest films—are no longer as impervious to punishment as they once were. Let’s make sure we keep it that way.