Colin Farrell plays a cardiologist forced to make a horrifying decision in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a psychological thriller that might have been a more traditional feature if it weren’t directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek director behind films like The Lobster and Dogtooth.
If you’ve seen his previous movies, you know what you’re getting into here. But Sacred Deer ratchets up the intensity of Dogtooth dials the absurdity of The Lobster way down, and results in what may be the director’s finest film to date.
That’s not to say that the movie isn’t rife with weirdness; robotic dialogue between characters in the film’s early scenes (a Lanthimos trademark) play out as if captured by an alien with no knowledge of how humans interact, and pointless exchanges about a wristwatch armband – which occupy no less than three separate scenes – are conveyed with utmost urgency.
The film also keeps us at bay because we have no idea why Cincinnati heart surgeon Steven Murphy (Farrell) keeps secretly meeting with young Martin (Barry Keoghan) in various locations: at a cafe, a deserted lot by the Ohio River, and at the hospital Steven works at.
But we know something is up because the film keeps dropping subtle hints about who Martin is and how Steven knows him, something he seems to lie about both to wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and co-worker Matthew (Bill Camp).
As Martin inserts himself further into Steven’s life – connecting with his two children, teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and young son Bob (Sunny Suljic) – and attempts to coerce Steven into a greater role in his own with his mother (Alicia Silverstone), everything comes to a devastating head about halfway through the movie.
Sacred Deer completely shifts gears with the reveal of its Twilight Zone-like reveal at the midpoint, and it’s something that audiences will either go with or not. It’s said that every movie can contain one single incredible element – from an outrageous coincidence to an alien attack – without straining credibility, but Lanthimos may have burned that bridge with some viewers given Deer’s oddball nature up till the reveal.
The second half of the film becomes an almost unbearably intense medical-cum-family drama, punctuated by uncomfortable beats of deadpan gallows humor. There are less surprises in store as the film nears its inevitable climax, but Sacred Deer never loses its grip on the audience.
Masterfully staged and directed by Lanthimos, with great use of wide shots that keep the human drama at bay and uses the characters as pawns in a sick game, Sacred Deer is a chilly and unsettling film that nevertheless exerts a fascinating grasp on viewers.
A sparse soundtrack weaves in horror movie stingers with classical compositions and an a capella rendition of Ellie Goulding’s Burn by Cassidy, while cinematography by longtime Lanthimos collaborator Thimios Bakatakis wonderfully captures the Cincy setting from downtown landmarks to eerie suburban serenity.
The mechanical way the director uses his actors typically keeps the performances at arm’s length, but Farrell and (especially) Kidman almost manage to sneak in some humanity. It’s Keoghan, however, who you might recognize from Dunkirk, who completely dominates the film: his deranged portrayal of the character at the center of the drama is unforgettable.
One should note, of course, that The Killing of a Sacred Deer is certainly not for everyone. It’s the kind of film that those in the know expect from Lanthimos, and the kind of film that only he could have made, but the casting and traditional-sounding plotline might attract viewers who don’t know what they’re getting into.
Despite enthusiastic reviews from many critics, the film was reportedly booed when it premiered at Cannes, and I would expect no less a reaction from general audiences. Then again, that’s exactly what its provocative director is going for.