Those unfamiliar with the work of Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos are in for a rude awakening with his latest masterful foray into the weird and wonderful realms of surreality. Unlike Lanthimos’ last dazzler, The Lobster, the boundaries of The Killing of a Sacred Deer are existent in a world that is inescapably our own and proves all the more disturbing for it. Consider this fair warning.
The rules are more straightforward this time too. Cardiologist Steven (Colin Farrell) is drawn into a nightmarish game in which his nuclear family: wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their two children, Kim and Bob (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic), are being struck down, one by one, by a mystery illness with four stages of development. First comes paralysis, then they lose their appetite ‘to the point of starvation’, their eyes bleed and finally comes death. Steven, he soon learns, can only break the curse by killing one of them, else he will lose them all. Why? Expect no spoiling here but, unrest assured, it’s a cracker. Like the title itself, Lanthimos’ plot is a spiritual descendant of Euripides’ sacrificial Ancient Greek story of Iphigenia in Aulis and is thus brimming with iconographical callbacks. ‘It’s a metaphor’ one character notes.
Written with an eye for stilted discomfort and shot in pans, long shots and a defiance of gravity, an experience of the film is rather like witnessing the work of the long lost love child of Samuel Beckett and Stanley Kubrick. Co-penned by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, The Killing of a Sacred Deer boasts a script which effortlessly jars; dialogue lurches from mundane to masochistic at so unrelenting a pace that there is no scene in which to take stock and breathe easy. Kubrick’s The Shining is a clear point of visual reference but nuanced too is Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and, therein the theatre of cruelty. All is amplified to operatic intensity by the arrangement of a breathtaking orchestral soundtrack, cherry picked from the work of others and totally integral to the film’s success. Indeed, a uniquely staggering opening image – of a real beating heart within an open human chest, captured mid an actual operation – comes only after several beats of black build up, allowing it to debut on a meticulously selected cue.
Once wilfully elevated to the distorted status of Homeric tragedy, an epic production must, of course, have a cast able to steer the balance continually from melodrama to magnificence. Ever the alchemist, Lanthimos has one. It would seem that only a select echelon of acting are fit for this brand of deadbeat absurdism. Farrell nailed it with The Lobster and once again rises to the occasion exceptionally. As does first-timer Kidman, transitioning from the story’s background to its fore as each twist develops, whose extended, nonverbal closeup of the second half must stand among her finest work. Playing it almost Village of the Damned odd, Suljic and Tomorrowland’s Cassidy, meanwhile, deliver confidence and weight enough to tackle genuinely meaty issues.
A word too for Dunkirk’s Barry Keoghan, here an ethereal scene stealer in the role of Martin, son of a former fatality of Steven’s operating theatre. The intriguing relationship he shares with Martin is just one of Steven’s innumerable quirks – which also include a penchant for a sex game with Anna called ‘general anaesthesia’ – and plays a central role in establishing the film as so compulsive viewing. Arresting and genuinely, subversively, terrifying.
Arthouse fare this weird always risks rubbing general audiences up the wrong way; so it inevitably will be with The Killing of a Sacred Deer. That said, it is hard to imagine those who just don’t get it finding themselves any less visually transfixed. Lanthimos has crafted a film that is utterly spellbinding.