A difficult part of writing a review for The Killing of a Sacred Deer is that it is almost impossible not to compare it to director Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous film, The Lobster (2015), which also starred Colin Farrell as the robotic, but nonetheless caring protagonist. The rest of the characters behave in a similarly unsettling manner, interacting with one another as if emotion is a completely foreign concept to all parties. Both films also feature fantastic elements, but are also strangely grounded in the reality of their respective worlds. If for no other reason, Lanthimos should be praised for having a distinctive style that is altogether different from the norm. His breakout film, Dogtooth (2009), was much the same, and all three films are darkly comedic, but also tense and horrific, primarily through an atmosphere of unease. Characters are peculiar, but generally not in a charming way; more often than not they are threatening, or at the very least disturbingly enigmatic. Ultimately, while Lanthimos has clearly been working to streamline his own unique style and work out all the kinks, he falls a little short with The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It is still a fascinating and meticulously crafted film, but it is simply not as imaginative and engaging as The Lobster.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer begins with a close shot of an open-heart surgery being performed, which will probably make a fair number of audience members uncomfortable. We come to find out that the protagonist, Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), is a heart surgeon. After performing the surgery from the previous scene, Steven goes to a diner to meet a teenage boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan), for whom Steven acts as a mentor, although the exact nature of their relationship is a mystery. Steven explains to his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), that Martin suffers from some kind of mental disorder, and that he has been helping Martin deal with the loss of his father. It is also revealed that Martin’s father was a patient of Steven’s at the time of his death. However, when Martin insists that they spend more time together, and even suggests that Steven should have an intimate relationship with Martin’s mother, Steven tries to distance himself from Martin. It is around this time that Steven’s young son, Bob (Sunny Suljic), inexplicably loses the use of his legs. Medical tests provide no answers, but Martin tells Steven that this is happening because Steven killed his father years earlier during surgery. Steven does not believe it at first, but when his teenage daughter, Kim (Raffey Cassidy), becomes afflicted with the same illness, he realises that it is all connected to Martin’s obsession with him.
Much like The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a film that poses many questions but provides few answers. This is not really a bad thing; in both films, part of the intrigue is that they are virtually impenetrable, at least from an analytical perspective. They thrive on jarring juxtaposition and metaphorical hypocrisy. Both films are at once ultra-realistic and complete make-believe. The characters are relatable, and yet behave like they are inhuman; and all of this takes place under an umbrella of dread and confusion, where slow shots move on character’s faces, while eerie music rises and dialogue is interspersed with long periods of unnatural silence. From all of these seemingly disparate elements, both comedy and horror arise, and generally work well together. These are films that beg to be analysed, and while there are certain conclusions that can be drawn regarding themes and symbolism, much of the films seem cryptic for the sake of being cryptic, and it works exceedingly well in their favor.
While it is difficult to separate the experience of watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer from the experience of watching The Lobster, since they are very similar stylistically, it is important to note the qualities that make the former unique. First and foremost, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a set in a narrative world that is much closer to our own. There are no technologies or strange social dictates that imply a dystopian future, like in The Lobster. Instead, it is a rather straight forward story about a father desperately trying to protect his family’s health and well-being. However, much like The Lobster, there are mysterious forces that dance the line between scientific and mystical. Nothing is ever explained in this respect. It is this emphasis on a more naturalistic story that makes The Killing of a Sacred Deer feel like a lesser film. There is far less effort put into the creation of a story world that is both bizarre and engrossing. Part of the unease of The Lobster arises from the constraints and limitations put on the characters by the cruel, unforgiving world they live in. This is, for the most part, completely left out of The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Looking more at the performances and film practice, there are certain elements of the story that do not fit well with Lanthimos’ style. For example, it is meant to be self-evident that Martin’s character has an extreme mental disorder, but his behavior, while certainly odd and unsettling, is not all that different from everyone else. Literally everyone in the film is strange, and no one acts like a normal human being. Additionally, no relationship is given more than a glance, which makes it hard to feel the emotional gravity inherent in the story. Steven’s relationship with Martin is a complete mystery, and his relationship with his family is cold and calculated. The tension in the film reaches a fever pitch as the children’s condition worsens, and yet, as spectators, we are less inclined to worry about them, and more inclined to be incredulous with the power that Martin wields over the entire family. Perhaps this was the filmmaker’s intention, but rather than creating drama, it feels like the frustration the story causes is more of a distraction than anything else.
Despite its shortcomings (which are largely due to its inability to surpass The Lobster in quality), The Killing of a Sacred Deer is yet another phenomenal addition to Yorgos Lanthimos’ body of work. It is a practice in surrealist style, combined with more traditional elements of horror, that work to create an utterly unique and baffling viewing experience.
Rating: ★★★★ out of 5
The Killing of the Sacred Deer is available to purchase via Amazon here.