Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenplay: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Alicia Silverstone, Bill Camp
Runtime: 121 Minutes
Everything about the world of The Killing of a Sacred Deer feels ever so slightly off. It looks and sounds like the reality that we know, but you get the immediate sense from the moment of the film’s first conversation that there is a significant detachment in the way in which the characters speak to one another. After a grotesque extended opening shot of open heart surgery, revered cardiothoracic surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) starts immediately comparing his watch to that of his colleague.
Steven and his family are inherently materialistic folks in a sterilised modern landscape, bound to routine and traditions of a family headed by patriarchy, but the sense that not all is well is confirmed by the presence of Martin (Barry Keoghan), a young boy with whom Steven shares an unusual and hidden fatherly bond. It is only upon Martin's introduction to the rest of the Murphy family – who all take an immediate liking to him – that their lives begin to unravel in strange, inexplicable and horrifying ways.
Yorgos Lanthimos is a brilliant filmmaker whose films seem to occupy the space of something uncanny lying just outside of the frame, dealing with narratives and dynamics that feel constantly under observation as their stories play out. Much like Dogtooth, this feels like a tight and contained story of social conflict and drama but inflated to the scale of an opera or a Greek Tragedy. It’s woven like an ancient parable of the implications of gods and men meeting eye to eye, of sacrifice and destiny in order to purify the soul and quell primal desires.
The camera work by collaborator Thimios Bakatakis is an omnipresent force that keeps the audience held in their seats as passive spectators to the tragedy that is being staged. The works of Kubrick are immediately echoed in its locked down and slow movements that follow behind and ahead of its figures down the long corridors of their extravagant household and the clinical hospital hallways. The intensity that it evokes is almost unbearable, and every frame and classical music cue leans heavily on the settings and impeccably staged and blocked motions sculpted specifically to reinforce the sensation that what is happening is of integral significance to the eventual outcome.
That’s never to say that it’s a dour experience, just an incredibly overwhelming one. Lanthimos delivers on his same conduct of dry and surreal comedy situations but it feels less skittish than anything in The Lobster, and more a symptom of how strange and improbably staged the entire thing feels in mood. The stilted and very literal dialogue is delivered as such by its terrific cast by design, making certain sequences a squeamish fit of delights as Raffey Cassidy sings Ellie Goulding’s ‘Burn’, or Alicia Silverstone’s quietly discomforting and animated performance as Martin’s lonely mother.
The universally excellent performances sell the characters and their pessimistic decisions perfectly, with Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman delivering excellent work as the husband and wife brought to their knees by the whims of a child. Said child being played by Barry Keoghan, whose recent work on Dunkirk has thrust him into the spotlight as a major talent, but he’s insidiously creepy here in a way that might place him in the pantheon of great cinematic villains. His youthful smile, childish attitudes and dress hiding a force to be reasoned with that dominates the film like an all-powerful deity in more ways than apparent.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer might be the film that Lanthimos has been building to his entire career, and feels like his most fully formed and impressive work to date as a result. The humour is about as dark as it can get before crossing over into something worse, but when it does it tips so gradually into it that you don’t even notice the transition. This is a fierce piece of awe-inspiring, stimulating and haunting filmmaking that at times beggars belief and craves immediate discussion.