I’m not sure what writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos has against doctors, but The Killing of a Sacred Deer serves as a cruel deflation of the god complex often associated with the profession. The movie is such a harrowing experience you could almost accuse it of cinematic malpractice.
Colin Farrell, who also anchored Lanthimos’ blackly brilliant The Lobster, stars as Steven, a heart surgeon with a close, if tightly wound, family. His wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) is an opthamologist, while older daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and younger son Bob (Sunny Suljic) mostly rebel by avoiding their modest chores. Despite the family’s placidly accomplished exterior—and this being Lanthimos, that placidity nearly registers as lifelessness—it seems as if the slightest disturbance of their family routine will plunge them into chaos. Which is precisely what happens with the arrival of Martin (Barry Keoghan), the teen son of Steven’s former patient, who gradually insinuates himself into their lives.
Keoghan, who had a memorable supporting role in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, keeps The Killing of a Sacred Deer compelling with his creepily earnest turn. Lanthimos prefers a precise performance style (that’s why Kidman is almost too good of a fit), yet Keoghan manages to spike it with a mumbly, mousy inflection. Martin still speaks flatly—and Keoghan makes his eyes dull—but you can detect a threat underneath. There is a muted volatility to the performance, the sense that things could take a bad turn at any moment. When Martin arrives at Steven’s house for a family dinner bearing gifts for Kim and Bob, you instinctively shudder at what might be inside the packages.
Lanthimos sits with this uncertainty for quite some time. Unlike The Lobster—where we’re told early on that Farrell’s character is at a hotel for single people who have 45 days to find a companion or they’ll be turned into an animal—or Lanthimos’ Dogtooth—which immediately immerses us in a family where the children have been raised in perverse seclusion—The Killing of a Sacred Deer doesn’t reveal its own “high concept” until a good hour into the movie. And aside from Keoghan’s unsettling performance, there isn’t really much until that point to keep us involved.
The movie is such a harrowing experience you could almost accuse it of cinematic malpractice.
Once we do realize what’s going on, Lanthimos puts the pedal down. The humor (which was surprisingly thin up until this point) decidedly blackens as the screws start to turn on Steven’s family and they start to turn on each other. Eventually, a movie that occasionally nodded to Stanley Kubrick (Shining-like Steadicam movements down hospital halls, discordant chords on the soundtrack, Kidman’s casting) devolves completely into hardcore, nihilistic, Kubrickian horror.
Why do I say “devolves” rather than “blossoms”? To be fair, my resistance to The Killing of a Sacred Deer may very well be the fact that, especially in its final moments, Lanthimos has managed to provoke me in ways he hadn’t before. If I hesitate to praise the movie, it might be a subconscious form of self-defense.
Yet I’d also suggest that The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a sadistic cinematic experiment that offers few findings. There is a lot of malice here, but not much meaning. The movie undercuts medical hubris, yes, and there are some sharp observations about hypocritical family dynamics. But there’s no larger, clearer target being satirized, as there was in The Lobster (marriage) or Dogtooth (authoritarianism). The Killing of a Sacred Deer is another Lanthimos bitter pill, to be sure, but this time with no intellectual chaser.