Double Feature: It's Outta Control (Killing of a Sacred Deer & A Serious Man)
Double features are a great way to watch movies. Well-selected double features complement each other like food and wine, bringing out hidden flavors or making you realize new aspects of something familiar. If you’re ever in need of a keenly paired set of movies to screen, check out our handy pre-packaged Double Features category– complete with theme breakdowns, aesthetic comparisons, and honest commentary about which movie should be the leading feature.
People are dumb when it comes to the topic of control. We do dumb things for the lack of it, and we do even dumber things when we get a taste of it. Power, greed, and envy all have their roots in control. A high schooler with an eating disorder and a warlord amassing an army are suffering from the same problem; an all too human problem. So many (I’d argue most or all of but there’s always wiggle room in musings) of the pressing situations we've faced, both in history and in the present day, stem from a desire for control. Anyone who tells you they don’t have control issues is not being honest with themselves, which is yet another manifestation of control. It never ends.
Lead feature: The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
This movie drove a lot of people crazy, if for no other reason than humans genuinely react poorly to no-win situations. That's especially true in the case of entertainment; when people say they want things tense and twisty, they still want a conclusion that has some measure of triumph in it. Even if it’s the bad guys winning, at least there’s something satisfying there.
In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the entire movie hinges on a no-win situation. Colin Farrell plays Steven, a recovering alcoholic surgeon with a strange connection to a teen boy Martin, played with the stilted chill of an early Cronenberg film by Barry Keoghan. As the movie progresses the nature of their relationship is slowly unraveled. We learn that Martin’s father died on the operating table while Steven was working on him. Steven seems to be clumsily making up for it by giving Martin gifts and buying him meals until Steven’s kids becomes ill. That’s when Martin corners Steven and tells him that there is a cosmic blood debt that needs to be repaid in the form of one of his family members. It can be either of his children or his wife but unless he makes the decision, they will all continue to get worse until the inevitable happens.
The reason Killing... garners such strong reactions from people is in the casual futility that is the character of Martin. Martin doesn’t seem to be in control of what is happening as much as he is reporting the facts of the matter. Steven’s attempts to fix the situation by any other means is met with no resistance, but also by no change to the inevitable outcome. They are the flipside of the “human control issues” coin: the flailing and the acceptance.
The question of whether or not Steven was sober the day he operated on Martin’s father gets tossed around. It’s implied that his death was the reason Steven quit drinking. Yet another inquiry into how much control we’re granted as humans. Steven maintains that the man would have died anyway, surrendering the control he had over someone’s life to a force that we are always trying to rein in: death.
While the movie uses Greek mythology as a springboard for its concept (in Iphigenia at Aulis, Iphigenia must be sacrificed for the accidental killing of a sacred deer that belonged to Artemis), it wraps itself further into the modern psyche and hits pain point inherent to the human condition. Not being able to protect the people you love, not knowing how your actions affect the future, having no good answers to anything are all as current as they are ancient. It’s just that nowadays we tend toward the more secular and are always trying to explain or fix things so facing no-win situations grows more maddening as we discover how much of our own control is an illusion.
Second billed: A Serious Man (2009)
In a lot of ways A Serious Man is a lighter movie. For one, it doesn’t include Colin Farrell swinging a shotgun in an attempt to randomly kill a family member, so by that metric alone it’s not as heavy. In other ways, this is actually an intensely depressing movie that recalls the Biblical story of Gob.
Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physics professor living in Minnesota in a very Jewish suburban community around the late sixties. He’s a perfectly average man, seems to like his job and his family, and doesn’t do much to rock the boat at all. Then, for no fault of his own, his life starts falling apart. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) asks for a divorce so she can marry someone else, he hears he’s going to be denied tenure, and he has to move into a motel despite being rendered penniless by his soon-to-be ex. Lots of people in his life like to speak platitudes at him about God’s will and what-will-be-will-be, but when God’s will looks to be cursing you specifically then that idea gets a bit less comforting.
Throughout the movie there’s a sense of helplessness as we watch somebody decent being wronged for no real reason. But then again, what reason is there ever for bad things happening to people? Even in the sense of karma as it is traditionally understood (not the new age reduction of it), karma can be debts or rewards from past lives, from cycles of energy you have no grasp on in your current incarnation. A Serious Man plays with this idea while tying it into the larger perspective of a conservative culture on the lip of a revolt.
In some ways, Larry is just a man trying to make his way in the world. He can be seen as the post-war fifties American Dream: got a decent job, modest house in a comfortable neighborhood, and a family that's, well, for the most part fine. He embodies a calm little center upon which the turbulence of the late sixties unleashed. His grip on his home, his financial stability, and his family loosens; God’s will continues to grant him no pardon.
At the very end of the movie, when things are on a bit of an upswing for Larry, the town faces a tornado while Larry gets an unnerving call from his doctor. Sickness and acts of nature are certainly the most overt things we have no control over. The history of humanity is basically just us trying to stave off illness and natural disasters, so to see them both descend on someone who we know is already struggling from things that could potentially be controlled is a sobering end to a fairly bleak comedy.
The repeated use of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” and the focus on the line “when the truth is found to be lies” speaks not only to the upheaval of the time period but also the constant back and forth we face as humans. How many times in your life did someone act as if they were 100% certain about something only to be completely wrong? How often in our developmental years are we told facts in a definitive manner by people who aren’t sure about what they’re talking about? How often are we told things just to keep us in line, to control us, by others who know they have no grip on us?
Larry becomes a victim to the lie of prosperity; that omnipresent promise presented to white men in the mid-20th century that they are entitled to a comfortable and relatively easy life. Of course, the question of “yeah, but who’s making that happen?” is not often posed when things are going well. It’s not until your world is falling apart like Larry’s that the concept of deserving, innocent, or even the simplistic good is approached.
Thematic similarities: Control, Substance abuse, Entitlement, Gender roles, Family dynamics, Religious texts
Aesthetic similarities: Minimalism