“Maybe it’s all psychological.”
The Killing of a Sacred Deer takes its title from the tragedy “Iphigenia at Aulis” by the Greek dramatist Euripides. I’ve published more than 800 reviews for this site, and that’s almost definitely the most pretentious opening line I’ve ever written. That might sound like an insult, but it’s actually quite fitting for this deeply unsettling movie, which uses a series of grandiose and idiosyncratic flourishes to explore one of the oldest and simplest concepts known to mankind: “an eye for an eye.”
“The most important thing in life is to have good friends, not lots of friends.”
On the surface, Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) has it all. He’s a successful cardiovascular surgeon with an attractive, accomplished ophthalmologist wife named Anna (Nicole Kidman), two kids — precocious, long-haired Bob (Sunny Suljic) and teenage Kim (Raffey Cassidy) — and a stunning house in a nice neighborhood. That’s why it’s a bit odd to see Steven hanging around with Martin (Barry Keoghan), a peculiar and polite teenage boy of modest means who doesn’t have a father. We watch Steven and Martin meet in discrete locations, where Steven dispenses pseudo-paternal advice (and gifts). These early scenes are meant to get our gears turning about Steven and Martin: What is the nature of their connection? And does it have anything to do with the death of Martin’s father?
Even though everything I’ve just written only covers about the first 20 minutes of this two-hour film, I’m extremely hesitant to give anything more away. Suffice it to say that strange things start occurring after Martin works his way into the Murphy household. (The horror unfolds in four clearly-defined steps and builds to an absurdly insane climax.) And to save you a bit of homework, the Greek tragedy that gives The Killing of a Sacred Deer its title is about legendary Greek leader Agamemnon, who is faced with the prospect of sacrificing someone close to him to appease the goddess Artemis.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, who made a splash last year with the equally deeply-weird romance The Lobster. (The movie earned a Best Original Screenplay nomination, with the emphasis squarely on “Original.”) While The Lobster was more overtly a comedy and set in a dystopian near-future, Lanthimos’ latest deadpan effort takes place in the here and now in a world that is presumably more recognizable as our own. That being said, Sacred Deer is arguably no more closer to real life than the movie where single people get transformed into animals.
In both The Lobster and Sacred Deer, Lanthimos works in a clinically detached style that features intentionally (and often hilariously) stilted dialogue. There is also some striking, God’s-eye imagery — the movie opens with an extreme close-up of an open heart surgery — along with a camera that often drifts or glides along with the characters on screen. (Think of some of the stuff Stanley Kubrick did with The Shining.) Lanthimos has smartly crafted a story that fits his distinct visual style; Steven’s hospital and the immaculate Murphy home are great matches for the sterile compositions he prefers. The result is an otherworldly vibe that helps lay the groundwork for some of the story’s more bizarre twists and turns.
The downside is it becomes almost impossible to emotionally connect with the plight of the Murphy family as they begin to physically deteriorate. (Teenage daughter Kim, in particular, is a pill.) In other words, Lanthimos spends so much time and effort creating a hermetically-sealed world where people spontaneously lose the use of their legs — don’t expect an explanation for Martin’s apparent power, by the way — that we don’t really care about the people this is happening to. The exception is Keoghan’s standout work as Martin, who solidifies his status as an outsider in Sacred Deer by displaying the most personality. (It’s a bracingly forthcoming, creepy personality, but still…) I don’t know how much attention Sacred Deer will garner once it hits theaters, but Keoghan should be a dark horse Best Supporting Actor contender.
Sacred Deer is the filmmaker’s second straight collaboration with Farrell, who starred in The Lobster. The actor gets to keep his lilting Irish brogue, even as Steven’s calm veneer slowly falls away. But even though Sacred Deer is interested in the role and importance of having a patriarch, the steeliest member of the Murphy family is actually Anna. Kidman — with her sharp features and icy blue eyes — is an excellent fit for Lanthimos’ chilly sensibility as a calculating mother who will go to any length to protect her family. That being said, there’s real fire behind those eyes and Lanthimos’ camera is there to capture it.
It’s virtually impossible to discuss The Killing of a Sacred Deer without dampening some of its unique impact…or weirding anyone out. The movie contains bleak moments meant to make you laugh out loud, and the story is told in a hypnotic style that is unlike anything you’re likely to see at the multiplex these days. In other words, this movie is most certainly not for everyone…but that’s precisely what I kinda dig about it.