The Killing of a Sacred Deer Review
Yorgos Lanthimos’ clinical approach remains as stark and distancing as ever in his modern take on a classic Greek mythology tale, the director serving up a story as chillingly cold and bleak as you've seen in some time. As is the norm with his films, do not expect too much emotional involvement, or to understand what lies at the heart of his characters. Lanthimos excels at creating worlds that at first outwardly reflect our own, populated by people who appear to be typically human, only to reveal themselves as darkly comedic alien imposters, a trend he continues in The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Newcomers to the director's particular style may be in for a bumpy ride, while those who have experienced his previous work will come prepared for deeper investigation. A conversation between surgeons Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) and Matthew (Bill Camp) serves as a quick introduction to the rigid speech patterns of the characters in this world, their monotone discussion about a new wristwatch more powerful than any sedative delivered to their patients. It’s a peculiarity extended to Steven’s family home where his ophthalmologist wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their two children Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic) reflect on their days in oddly precise fashion.
Another wristwatch enters the fray, this time when Steven hands Martin (Barry Keoghan), a young teenage boy he meets and speaks with regularly, an identical copy of his own. Who this boy is and the depth of their relationship remains unexplained at first. It turns out Steven had operated unsuccessfully on Martin's now deceased father and has been extending a shoulder ever since. There seems little cause for concern, even after Steven is invited to Martin’s home before being pounced upon by his sexually frustrated mother (played by Alicia Silverstone whose “I won’t let you leave until you’ve tasted my tart!” one-liner almost steals the show), it feels more uncomfortable than worrying. Then suddenly, young Bob can’t get out of bed. His legs have stopped working. The medical experts at the hospital are stumped. But Martin appears to have a solution that will send Steven and his family spinning towards an unavoidable nightmare.
There have been a number of reviews discussing the subsequent plot events but to do so would ruin the enjoyment of journeying deeper inside Lanthimos’ twisted mind. He continues his partnership with DoP Thimios Bakatakis who is always able to extract the most from the director’s distinct style. The cold atmosphere pervading both the hospital and the Murphy family home is a good fit for Lanthimo’s objective examination of his subjects. Slow zooms are shocked into life by a violent, disturbing score and the precise framing is distinctly Kubrickian at times.
Both Farrell and Kidman give a good demonstration of familial perfection slowly falling apart once their pristine world has been brutally punctured. Yet it is Barry Keoghan who steals the show from right under the noses of his more experienced co-stars. He calmly opens a door into Martin's malevolent mind, the naturally youthful tics that surge through his bodily movements adding an unnerving edge to his profile. The cast as a whole work within a comedic tone which is perhaps blacker than in any of Lanthimos’ previous films, in particular a scene where Steven visits his children’s school to meet the headmaster, hoping to hear feedback that will influence his decision one way or the other. It also serves as the moment where the name of the Greek tragedy that inspired this menacing story is revealed.
For all its admirable technical qualities you can't help but feel distanced from the people we see onscreen. Lanthimos' strongest quality can often prove to be his biggest weakness, where the bizarreness of the story cannot always compensate for the detached state of mind he generates within his audiences. He gets a kick from playing God and dropping his characters into adverse situations, sitting back with glee to study just how distorted his universe can become. A little personal involvement wouldn't go amiss on occasion to help lift events beyond the confines of his own strict rules. Lanthimos' latest effort proves to be a typically unnerving and bizarre experience but is missing one or two important pieces of the puzzle to make it feel complete.