Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer is not an easy film to watch. The performances are often monotone and expressionless. The soundtrack is aggressively loud. Vital plot elements are left unexplained. The screenplay directly confronts themes such as filicide, youth sexuality, torture, and religious sacrifice.
It’s possibly the best film of the year.
Colin Farrell reunites with Lanthimos after 2015’s The Lobster and delivers another terrifically unconventional performance as Steven Murphy, a cardiothoracic surgeon who has a strangely close relationship with Martin (Barry Keoghan) – the teenage son of a patient of Murphy’s who died during surgery. The relationship turns sinister as Martin starts to integrate himself into Steven’s family and daily life, despite the doctor’s attempts to pull away. When Steven’s son, Bob (Sunny Sulijic), becomes inexplicably paralysed, Martin gives him a choice – kill a member of his own family to atone for killing Martin’s father during surgery, or watch them all die from the same illness now plaguing Bob.
While The Lobster brought Lanthimos to the attention of English-speaking audiences due to its original ideas and distinctive directorial style, Sacred Deer will surely cement him as one of the most notable auteurs of his generation. Influence from directors such as Stanley Kubrick and Michael Haneke can be felt at varying moments throughout the film, but it never feels like Lanthimos is simply copying their styles. Rather, he has learnt from them to create something original and daring. Every aspect of the filmmaking craft is utilised to make the viewing experience as unsettling as possible, even before Martin delivers his ominous threat. Thimios Bakatakis’s cinematography favours the wide lens to make his characters shrink against dull, pale backdrops, and the largely classical soundtrack ranges from religious choirs to screeching violins. Keoghan delivers a boldly unflattering performance as the sociopathic yet strangely innocent Martin, and Nicole Kidman is perfectly cast as Murphy’s elegant and cold wife who will do whatever necessary to understand what is happening to her and her family.
All these elements are constructed to make intelligent characters seem utterly powerless against incomprehensible circumstances, inspired by classic Greek tragedies of mortals struggling to deal with unforgiving and unknowable Gods.
Some viewers will hate Killing of a Sacred Deer. Films as thoughtful and uncompromising as this are rare and should be celebrated, but are often met with objections from those who find them to be of poor taste or unclear. Yet those who won’t turn away will be rewarded with a true piece of art, and filmmaking of the highest calibre.