Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, Dogtooth) doesn’t make simple, straightforward movies. He doesn’t offer easy answers, or often even answers at all. His latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, doesn’t depart from this formula, but like his other films, it’s hypnotic, confrontational, and lingers long after exiting the theater.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is compelling, dense, and strange—a friend asked how it was and my response was, “Weird as balls,” which I stand by. Brimming with unusual choices, it’s awkward and off-kilter, full of deliberate button pushing, and packed with deep-dive psycho-sexual baggage that’s way above my paygrade to unpack.
Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a renowned heart surgeon with a successful wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), two perfect kids, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic), and an idyllic life. Things crumble when Martin (Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk), a young man he’s taken under his wing, turns sinister and forces Steven to make an impossible decision.
On the surface, Sacred Deer plays like a revenge thriller, where a creepy, initially harmless seeming kid inserts himself into this family’s life only to reveal the darkness of his true intentions. Martin has shadowy motivations; Steven reacts to those. But it’s much more layered and nuanced, and not nearly as straightforward as that sounds.
Like many other picture perfect nuclear family units, rot runs through the Murphy clan, though they bury it so deep they scarcely know it’s there themselves. Steven and Anna can only have sex when she pretends to be unconscious and under general anesthesia. Every interaction between family members plays cold; polite, but chilly and disconnected.
Of all the disquieting flourishes Lanthimos includes, it’s this cold delivery that proves the most unsettling. The actors read nearly every line with flat, inflectionless, robotic precision. There’s almost no emotion or feeling in spoken words. Crazy, traumatic, visceral struggles engulf the family, but even in the midst of bedlam, even as Steven and Anna watch their children paralyzed and in the hospital, their voices barely rise or fall. And the same goes for the kids. They can’t walk, there’s no reason why, but they might as well be talking about a particularly uninteresting history assignment.
But the actors give all the other cues that usually go along with dialogue, using expressions, movement, body language, and all the other tools performers have at their disposal to communicate. Steven rages in every way but with his voice. Kidman’s full destructive force is on display in close ups where a blink or a subtle twinge in her eyebrow communicate more than any of her words. Martin’s words and intentions are all the more menacing for the absence of surface malice. It’s almost as if he’s disinterested in his efforts to destroy these people, and Keoghan is chilling.
Initially, this comes across as stilted and strange, an odd aesthetic choice in a movie full of them. It’s not necessarily disturbing at first, but it crawls under the surface, breaking apart the foundation so everything built on top of that becomes unstable and perilous. All remains calm, even in moments of startling violence. It’s an unnerving juxtaposition and it’s difficult for the mind to rectify these disparate, contradictory elements. This causes disquiet in an unusual way and also makes the sparse moments when voices do rise all the more jarring.
Visually, The Killing of a Sacred Deer unspools like Kubrick doing Hitchcock. Long, high-angle shots follow Steven through antiseptic hospital hallways and it’s easy to imagine trailing Danny Torrance through the Overlook Hotel. The frame pushes and pulls and tracks, capturing the action from odd angles and vantage points that add yet another level of discomfort and voyeuristic perspective. At one point, Nicole Kidman utters the phrase, “Beautiful but lifeless,” which serves as an apt metaphor. There’s a sterile, sanitized edge, and the family home is as stark and spotless, and as cold and impersonal, as the hospital rooms.
Lanthimos also uses sound to great effect. The sonic design ranges from blunt silence to classical needle drops to chaotic, cacophonous racket that swells until it drowns out dialogue and ambient noise. Yet another instance where the construction of the film aims to fluster the audience and cause a spot of bother, never allowing sustained comfort.
I don’t know that I can say I like or love The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It’s not that kind of easily classifiable film; this isn’t a movie to throw on for a casual watch. And that’s what makes it remarkable. Challenging and confrontational, it destroys expectations, toys with emotions in unusual ways, and intentionally pushes the audience away while daring them to come in.
The glacial pace and heightened sense of moral ambiguity will surely turn off a wide swath of the audience. Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest is destined to engender hate and adoration in equal measures, and probably deserves everything it reaps, from accolades to condemnation. But as deliberately, stubbornly off-putting as it is, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is an endlessly fascinating watch and isn’t easily brushed aside. [Grade: A]