Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Writer: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthimis Filippou
Producer: Ed Guiney, Yorgos Lanthimos
Stars: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Alicia Silverstone, Bill Camp
A heart surgeon hiding a tragic secret puts his family in danger when a troubled teenager turns his life upside down.
“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” unzips its coat slowly. The story chooses not to reveal much for quite some time, although a disquieting sense of unease develops straight out of the gate.
The first shot depicts a bloody human heart beating in a torso torn open on an operating table. Consider it a bold warning from director Yorgos Lanthimos that he demands attention, and he wants an unusual, confrontational sight in your face to instill a specific feeling from the start. Uncomfortable violin strains accompanying otherwise innocuous interactions between teen boy Martin and heart surgeon Steven provide another early clue that something intangible skews this unusual world strangely.
Martin and Steven have been having personal meetings for some time. Nothing outwardly out of the ordinary. It isn’t initially clear how the two of them connect, yet they regularly grab a bite, exchange small gifts, and eventually share dinners at each other’s houses with their respective families.
Then Martin starts coming around unannounced. He compels Steven to pay him more attention, stalks about the hospital where Steven works, and puts weird whispers into the ear of Steven’s daughter Kim.
What starts as an apparent father figure mentorship morphs into something macabre as Martin exploits a secret that manipulates Steven’s family in a threatening manner. Steven’s only way out may require murder, except his victim will have to be someone much closer to him than Martin.
“The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” which sounds like a forgotten giallo title, doesn’t take place in an ordinary reality. Movement occurs at 75% speed, like a slow swim without urgency even though a shark lurks somewhere in surrounding depths. This muted mood drinks in dreaminess, but the setting isn’t surreal.
People speak clinically, not in vacant monotones, yet still like entranced automatons. Whether talking about a teen daughter’s recent menstruation or discussing how much hair someone has in his armpits, no amount of matter-of-fact bluntness seems out of line for anyone. Casual conversations about leather watchbands versus metal ones or parental reminders to water plants compose additional building blocks for bizarre banality.
Fog should be clearing by now regarding what form of feeling the film intends to establish. “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” patiently tiptoes through a full 50 minutes before entering more typical thriller territory, as it doesn’t aim to entertain in the way its setup might suggest. The movie doubles as an art piece too, which is where it draws a dividing line between those hypnotized by the unconsciously chilly air and those put off by Yorgos Lanthimos’ auteur ambling.
More literal, logic-minded viewers may stub mental toes wondering how the film’s fiction functions. How did Martin discover what he knows? How does Martin pull off his plan? Answers are unavailable. Lanthimos’ script, co-written by Efthimis Filippou, roots itself in rules where rationality doesn’t drive motivations, either for the characters or for the movie. Scenes explore thematic spaces as opposed to purely narrative ones.
When that traditional psychological suspense turn is taken, intrigue really ramps up. Frustration fills the imagination as fast as Steven’s mind maddens. Martin moves from awkward outcast to impenetrable enigma, and the inability to see inside his head fuels intellectual tension in tune with the tone. Barry Keoghan deserves incredible acclaim for his engaging performance as a quietly conflicting personality tugging sympathy with one hand and enmity with the other.
As an exercise in methodically constructed dread, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is effective and affecting. However, identifying its purpose beyond being an experiment in unsettled ambiance remains an ambiguous objective. Substance isn’t in the story; it’s in the texture. And without such richness enabling onscreen actions, hollow mood alone cannot completely satisfy.
Despite being gripping, emptiness inside individual pieces leaves one wondering what the overall experience is worth. Peeling back layers reveals a strange obsession with male masturbation, cold interpersonal behaviors, and distant characterizations without emotional attachments. The movie wants to induce discomfort, and does. But that sensation only goes so far, because obtuse artistry behind it doesn’t let the impact linger.
Is it enough for a movie to push, pull, and prod, even if you ultimately don’t move anywhere? “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” possesses the ability to do those first three p’s. How far it can alter your position past that comes down to personal disposition for dipping in disordered darkness.
Review Score: 55