In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, life and all its mundanities are interrupted by operatic bursts of discomfort, accompanied by orchestral pieces that send a chill up the spine. It opens aggressively–the beating heart of an anesthetized individual pumping as open surgery is performed–and shifts immediately to two men walking down a hall and discussing watches. There’s humor in this contrast, just as in the many more to come, just as there’s humor in all of Yorgos Lanthimos’ work. But there’s a bleak, miserable tinge to each laugh. As funny as it is, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a thriller at its core, and it never forgets that.
The characters that Lanthimos and writing partner Efthymis Filippou have written are never allowed to forget this either. The writers create and show us a perfect family, or at least a family as seemingly perfect as possible in the off-beat world we’re dropped into. Everything is restrained, the humans in this world rarely if ever betraying their matter-of-fact nature. Stephen and Anna Murphy (Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman) are both medical professionals, have raised two seemingly talented children (each with their own flaws, but neither greater or lesser than the other), and live a fairly common upper-middle class life.
They find a thorn in their side in Martin (Barry Keoghan), the son of a former patient who Stephen allowed to die during surgery (likely due to negligence and Stephen’s alcoholism). He treats Stephen as a replacement father figure, complete with awkward and hilarious interactions with his mother involving fingers, homemade tart, and the movie Groundhog Day. But all the pleasantry is set aside when Martin decides to enact vengeance for the death of his father. Stephen is given an ultimatum: choose one of your children to die, or watch them and your wife die slowly and painfully.
In the same way that The Lobster asked the viewer to suspend their disbelief on people being turned into animals if they were single for too long, The Killing of a Sacred Deer requires the viewer to commit to the clearly stated plot. No one knows why or how Martin can make Stephen’s family suffer slowly—losing the ability to move their lower body and bleed from the eyes—but the result is something special. As the children Kim and Bob Murphy, Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic tap into an uncomfortably giddy type of performative work that involves them rolling off beds, dragging themselves across rooms, and throwing cold, calculated takedowns at each other while not-so-subtly making their case for why they’re the child that should live.
There’s never any grand burst of emotion, as everything is presented as if we were still in the sterile world of an operating room, with maybe a splash of liquor under your breath to make the absurdity of life seem more natural. The camera floats through scenes like an omnipresent figure watching the Greek myth of Iphigenia loosely adapted and turned reality unfold. It’s all fluid motions, at once distant and intrusive in the same way that Stanley Kubrick once was. Lanthimos’ aforementioned collection of choral and instrumental pieces emphasizes that connection, creating a soundscape that haunts the viewer in between belly laughs.
Filippou and Lanthimos’ script forces Farrell to lean into his pathetic character as much as possible, giving Kidman the meatier lead role, though both commit to a hilarious extent. Much like Filippou’s collaboration with Athina Rachel Tsangari on Chevalier, so much of the film seems dedicated to examining how patriarchal establishments cannot survive having to make the simplest of choices. Where that film had a competition take apart the fragile masculinity of a group of men, this film uses the incredibly talented and creepy Keoghan to slurp spaghetti as he becomes a permanent fixture in their lives, a reminder that Stephen is useless when it comes to making life-or-death decisions. Where Farrell delivers constant anxiety and frustration, to the point of almost losing the sick game he’s playing, Kidman maintains a stony, collected facade, only breaking to express overwhelming frustration at the inadequacy of man.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a stellar film by a filmmaker dedicated to toying with anticipation. There’s humor in misery and there’s a treasure trove of absurdity to be brought out of the mundane. By no means is Yorgos Lanthimos’ oft-brutal humor for everyone, but the film clearly lays out what its intentions are from the get-go. It delivers on the promise of death, no doubt, and hopes you enjoy every ridiculous minute as it approaches its expected finale.
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos; written by Yorgos Lanthimos & Efthymis Filippou; starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy & Sunny Suljic; 121 minutes.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is now experiencing a limited theatrical release.