From Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos comes an unsettling psychological thriller set in the suburbs of Cincinnati. Cardiac surgeon Steven Murphy lives an idyllic life. He has a beautiful home, a loving, supportive wife named Anna, and two sweet children named Bob and Kim. Everything about his existence is so pristine and pleasant that the presence of an outlier is immediately apparent. That outlier is a young man named Martin. Odd and particular, at first it seems as if there’d be no good reason for Steven to spend time with Martin. He’s distracted, ornery, and seemingly unconcerned with violating personal boundaries. Yet Steven entertains him, gives him gifts, and even invites him into his home. Why?
Something happened to Martin’s father during his heart surgery the year before and unfortunately for Steven, the young man thinks his death is Steven’s fault. And so it comes to pass that Martin, unappeased by Steven’s meagre offerings, tells Steven that he must kill a member of his family or they will all succumb to paralysis, eventually refuse sustenance, begin bleeding from the eyes, and then finally perish. Steven—whose relationship with Martin has always been strained and almost perfunctory thanks to Steven’s deeply suppressed guilt—thinks Martin’s declaration is ridiculous. Yet one by one Steven’s family members begin to lose sensation in their limbs, eventually leaving him with the impossible choice: kill his wife, his daughter, or his son. Or perhaps kill Martin.
I was a big fan of Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous film, The Lobster, which used dry humor and a biting sense of wit to explore the bizarre conventions of modern romance. The Killing of a Sacred Deer exists in a similar vein, though this time, Lanthimos seems almost completely transfixed by the idea of consequence, and specifically, male consequence. Steven has potentially committed an awful act and now he is suffering because of it. The entire film is thematically entrenched in the idea of paralysis—the paralysis of thought, of action, of the literal body—and Steven’s family suffers due to his indecision. His reticence at first to even consider meeting Martin’s demands is not because he believes he has been wrongly accused; rather it is a stubborn denial made to preserve his ego. Steven even admits his children to the hospital where he works and runs them through a gamut of tests in hopes of seeking a cure, though it becomes increasingly clear there is only one act that will set things right.
Loosely based on the myth of Iphigenia—in which a father must choose whether or not to kill his child to please a vengeful god—The Killing of a Sacred Deer plays out like a modern-day parable. There is no explanation as to how Martin has called down this cosmic punishment and the story is better for it. It is a slow-burn, bottle thriller, except here Steven is not confined by his environment, but by his horrific set of choices, which are exacerbated by his inability to take responsibility for literally anything. I wrote earlier that this film is an exploration of male consequence. I write this specifically because one gets the sense that if it were up to Anna, Steven’s wife, these circumstances would’ve never come up in the first place. In every part of the film, Anna practices her agency whereas Steven is reactionary. This distinction even reaches into their love life, where Steven’s biggest turn on is having Anna pretend that she’s been anaesthetized while they have sex. Unfortunately for their family, Martin’s curse can only be lifted by Steven, whose patriarchal hubris seems to make him incapable of action until the film’s shocking and upsetting denouement.
Once again, Lanthimos, along with frequent co-writer Efthymis Filippou, creates a world of surface interaction with stilted dialogue meant to convey the shallow nature of most of these characters. Kim and Bob only speak to their parents about their chores. Steven and Martin converse about what’s going to happen to Steven’s family over sandwiches. Steven speaks to the principal of his children’s school and tries to parse who is more academically gifted. The blithe, almost surgical nature of his questions is at once unsettling and oddly funny, something that can be said for this film as a whole. It’s so dark you can’t help but laugh. However, the film’s purposefully mannered dialogue exists with a healthy dose of subtext that renders even the most blasé interaction meaningful.
The subtext is only successful thanks to the incredible efforts of the actors present here. Colin Farrell (in his second collaboration with Lanthimos) once again inhabits the role of an emasculated dope with ease. Steven, beyond all his quiet pleasantness, simmers with barely contained frustration, angered by the seeming injustice of what is happening to him rather than the consequences to be inflicted upon his family. Nicole Kidman is, unsurprisingly, excellent as Anna, the woman hitched to this doomed enterprise. She’s a decisive and incredibly intelligent person. However, she is often ignored by her husband and, in one argument, he insults her as being “only an ophthalmologist.” In the end, no matter how poised and level-headed she is, her main obstacle is that she cannot make the decision for Steven and so the fate of their family falls to him. Though both wonderful, no one makes the same impression as Barry Keoghan, who plays Martin. Keoghan somehow manages to make a small, twitchy teen one of the most disturbing characters in recent memory. Wildly emotional and unpredictable, with a penchant for slurping spaghetti, Martin is an achievement in writing and performance: an impish force of godlike consequence that weaves through this film like the shark in Jaws, making hairs rise in every scene in which he appears and his presence felt in every scene in which he does not. These performances combined with the cold, sterile cinematography by Thimios Bakatakis and a selection of jarring classical music accompaniments make the sum total of The Killing of a Sacred Deer horrifically unforgettable.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a chilling and wonderfully bleak film that offers no easy answers. An artfully crafted exercise in tension and atmosphere that manages to make even the most mundane settings and people utterly unnerving. Another singular work from Yorgos Lanthimos. You owe it to yourself to see this film.