In a still relatively young career, Yorgos Lanthimos has carved out an inimitable auteurist space. His films are instantly recognizable: brazenly bizarre concepts presented with deceptive dryness, exposing a glaring fallacy in the human condition with dark humor and, eventually, a sneaking humanity. The Killing of a Sacred Deer expectedly and skillfully ticks off most of the usual boxes, except for the last one – in this film, humanity is left out in the cold, and contrary to Lanthimos’ earlier films, the chill isn’t ironic.
For a while it’s actually unclear what the precise concept is going to be, or if there will be one at all; in another dissimilarity from the director’s earlier works, the central thrust isn’t clearly laid out from the start, but something that builds over the course of an eerie first act. We meet Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a renowned cardiac surgeon, who seems to organize his life in compartments divided with surgical precision. He maintains a coldly traditional family dynamic with wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), older daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and young son Bob (Sunny Suljic), going through the standard motions with loyalty but little passion. However, much of his attention is increasingly consumed by Martin (Barry Keoghan), a teenage boy that Steven is either mentoring, subsidizing, or some vaguely creepy combination of both. How these pieces fit together and the implications they carry are not initially made clear, and that illusory strategy is quite effective. It’s a mystery that feels at any moment that it will give way to unspeakable clinical horrors, underscored with a gothic combination of loud clangs of classical orchestrations and unnerving original sonic stingers.
Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou let their story play out cryptically, letting its purpose dangle just outside of the audience’s reach, before finally showing their cards in a reveal that’s equal parts disturbing and darkly funny. To remain spoiler-free, suffice it to say that The Killing of a Sacred Deer becomes a film about a surgeon, a man whose occupation typically carries with it a notorious God Complex, who is forced into playing God when he would certainly rather not. His burden impacts each member of his family, one by one, like dominoes that expose each person’s intrinsic frailties as they fall.
Much like its title, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is organized with symbolic elegance, as masterfully constructed as anything Lanthimos has ever created. The camera is constantly probing these characters, focusing from extreme angles, pushing in, zooming out, dissecting every moment with an intent, sterile gaze. The style is fittingly surgical, but it keeps the audience at arm’s length; we are merely auditors of the surgery rather than active participants. In Dogtooth and The Lobster, the environment was an integral part of the concept, allowing the viewer to fuse with the characters and immerse in the mythos. Here the concept seems thrust onto the environment rather than growing organically out of it, creating an impenetrable barrier between the audience and the characters. These actors, all wonderful, are made to function with the standard Lanthimos oddity, mannered to the point of Stepfordian inertia. Since the world the film occupies is otherwise apparently normal – or at least Lanthimos’ interpretation of normal – the inherent disconnect leaves us with little to latch onto, antiseptic cynicism snuffing out even the slightest hint of empathy.
To be sure, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is endlessly fascinating and compulsively watchable, a film that will no doubt inspire hoards of analysis. But contrary to Lanthimos’ other films, there isn’t much to feel at the end of its intellectual sprawl.