'The Killing of a Sacred Deer'
With his English language debut ‘The Lobster’, ‘Dogtooth’ director Yorgos Lanthimos proved that he would lose none of his morbid surrealism or uncompromising cinematic style simply by working with movie stars. His follow-up, ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’, features famous faces once again, but somehow even less hope, humor, or obvious commercial appeal.
It’s a nasty piece of work, practically a horror movie. This cinematic journey is only to be taken by those with strong nerves and endurance.
Colin Farrell stars as Steven Murphy, a successful heart surgeon with a comfortable living, a loving wife (Nicole Kidman), healthy children, and the respect of his peers. Well, in as much as that’s possible in a Yorgos Lanthimos movie, anyway. He’s still a hopelessly awkward mess in a deadpan satire of mundane life. Steven also spends an inordinate amount of time with a teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan) who always tries to get a little too close. It’s suggested that Steven may have been responsible for the death of the boy’s father on the operating table. When his son (Sunny Suljic) and daughter (Raffey Cassidy) are suddenly stuck sick, it becomes clear that Martin was actually responsible. More disturbingly, it seems that Steven will have to make an unimaginable sacrifice to set things right.
That sounds vague, but only to protect the unsettling viewing experience of ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’. The story comes from an old fable, and Lanthimos treats the film as a magical realist Grimm fairy tale caught within a deadpan horror comedy. The queasy laughs, discomforting pacing, meticulous framing and healthy smattering of symbolism that define the filmmakers’ previous work are all present and accounted for. However, this time the director seems less playful and more mean. Every scene carries a sense of nauseating anxiety, if not outright horror or panic. The film raises difficult moral quandaries and treats its fantastical conceit as straight reality. Everything in even the quietest scenes feels slightly off, with the actors moving with slightly too much control and the camera always hinting at something being wrong. It’s never clear what causes the mysterious illnesses or why the boy has so much power. It doesn’t matter. The mystery only makes the tone creepier and the story harder to predict.
To an extent, ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ is a pure genre effort from the art house auteur. The film is designed to cause unease, and despite the absurdist bleak humor and hints of mysterious fantasy, it plays like a nasty thriller. It will disturb and raise questions without any comforting conclusions, walking a line between art house pretentions and lurid thrills. Many viewers will be put off, which is entirely the point. This movie is for those who want to be disturbed and pushed to a dark and uncomfortable cinematic realm that they’ve never been to before. Yorgos Lanthimos specializes in such things, and this time the perverse humor has been dialed back to lessen the blow. It’s a punch to the gut that will linger in your head for a variety of reasons whether you like it or not. Serious-minded sick puppies will eat it up. Everyone else will emerge feeling icky in ways that they can’t quite explain or shake off.