What is ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’?
Steven is a man with seemingly everything. A celebrated heart surgeon, he’s rich, happily married, and has two healthy, beautiful children. But there’s something off about Steven’s friendship with a 16-year-old boy called Martin. And when Martin asks for something quite odd, Steven is forced to make a devastating choice that threatens to tear his family apart.
The Unblinking Eye
The Killing of a Sacred Deer kicks off with close-up footage of heart surgery, the camera lingering on the bloody insides of a chest so the audience has no choice but to drink in the gory details.
Yorgos Lanthimos’s twisted feature continues in similar fashion, refusing to shy away from the grim themes at its dark heart, no matter how much the audience might want some respite.
That discomfort is magnified by the strange, stilted way in which his characters speak; each exchange cold, mannered and distant. It’s as if the body-snatchers have already invaded, and drained everyone of both feeling and emotion.
It’s through this twisted prism that we view heart surgeon Steven (Colin Farrell), his beautiful wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their children Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffy Cassidy).
Their formal discussion around the dinner table is punctuated by blunt questions and answers on deeply personal matters. When the parents retire to bed, their sex is weirdly mechanical, with Anna asking if he wants ‘general anaesthetic’ then disrobing and pretending to be unconscious.
Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis shoots these interactions with a cold, stark, clinical eye; the colours muted, the pictures oppressive. And the score combines soaring orchestral numbers with abstract sounds and off-kilter strings that are deeply troubling to the ear.
Steven and Martin
All of which makes for a deeply unsettling viewing experience. Which becomes all the odder when Steven meets with Martin, a 16-year-old boy whom he takes to lunch and buys presents. They seem to like each other, but it’s clear there’s something bubbling beneath the surface.
In the heightened reality that Lanthimos has created, no one questions this strange friendship. Instead, the writer-director simply cranks up the tension via painfully awkward scenes in which Martin breaks bread with Steven’s family, and Steven has dinner with Martin’s single mum (Alicia Silverstone, in a wicked turn).
Then the bombshell is dropped. Turns out Martin has a ‘master plan’ that requires Steven to make a choice. One that we won’t reveal here, but will make sense to fans of the Old Testament. Or the story of Iphigenia in Greek mythology. Or those that believe in Karma.
And a film that had been coasting along in weirdly understated fashion then kicks into high gear, asking incredibly tough moral questions of its characters, and in turn the audience. Logic and rationality are thrown out the window, revenge, guilt, and retribution all come into play, and the film proceeds to both challenge and provoke in equal measure.
Yet, in spite of the fact that we’re watching a family being torn apart at the seams, Killing of a Sacred Deer is also funny. Albeit bleakly so, the humour frequently coming from Steven’s strange behaviour as options dwindle and his situation becomes increasingly dire.
It’s one of Colin Farrell’s best performances; the Irish actor keeping his charisma in check as he drolly delivers lines in deadpan fashion. He’s pretty much God at the start of the film, with life and death in his hands. But by the end of Sacred Deer, we see the character for who he really is. And it isn’t pretty.
Nicole Kidman lends fantastic support as his wife, who becomes increasingly important as the film progresses. And Barry Keough — last seen in Dunkirk — very nearly steals the film as Martin, managing to be both sympathetic and terrifying, sometimes in the same scene. No mean feat when your character doesn’t emote.
Is The Killing of a Sacred Deer Good?
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a tough watch. A parable that’s filled with symbolism and metaphor, the true meaning of lines and actions early in proceedings only become clear late on. Meaning it might require a second viewing, though that’s probably the last thing you’ll want to do when the credits roll.
It’s a film that will make you feel anxious. And shocked. And appalled. But if you make it to the end, it’s a film that stays with you. One that lingers in the back of the brain, chipping away, and asking questions you don’t want answered.
That seems to be Yorgos Lanthimos’s intention with every film he’s made thus far, and something he successfully achieved in both Dogtooth and The Lobster. For better or worse, he’s done it again with Killing of a Sacred Deer, forcing the audience to face their darkest fears, and rewarding those who don’t blink with pain and misery, bringing a new way of looking at the world.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer played at Fantastic Fest, and hits U.S. screens in October and U.K. screens in November.