It's hard to tell exactly what to make of The Killing of a Sacred Deer — or even how to categorize it. It has the makings of a horror film (violence, blood and a supernatural threat), but the characters show no signs of fear or terror. It has a vague air of satire hanging over it, but in such a flat, listless way that it seems more tired than witty. It's compulsively watchable, but intellectually empty. Like director Yorgos Lanthimos' last film The Lobster, it's flashy but superficial, odd enough to hold your interest but leaving you with nothing.
The movie is about Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a successful heart surgeon. (The first shot is a lengthy close up of an operation in progress, just to catch your attention.) He has a beautiful wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), two children, Kim and Bob, an impressive home and an apparent obsession with expensive wristwatches. His family is unaware that Murphy also occasionally spends time with Martin (Irish actor Barry Keoghan), an awkward teenaged boy who gradually inserts himself into the doctor's family, first as a bad-boy love interest for Kim, but eventually as a more threatening presence.
The plot is loosely inspired by Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis; Lanthimos makes the connection clear by letting us know that Kim wrote a school paper about the play. Martin becomes increasingly demanding, even trying to arrange a romance between Murphy and his mother (Alicia Silverstone in an awkward cameo). When Murphy's son is suddenly paralyzed, Martin finally reveals his intentions: His father died during an operation performed by Murphy, and in revenge he has placed a curse on the doctor's entire family. Anna, Kim and Bob will endure a series of torments — paralysis, starvation, bleeding from the eyes — and die within days unless Murphy kills one of them to balance Martin's loss.
- JIMA (ATSUSHI NISHIJIMA), COURTESY OF A24
- The plot is loosely inspired by Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis.
Despite the excesses of its revenge plot, Lanthimos stages everything with a chilly distance. Just as The Lobster lifted its post-civilization atmosphere from Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, Sacred Deer pulls a lot of its visual style from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (with a pinch of Eyes Wide Shut), borrowing the earlier film's methods — long tracking shots, atonal music — regardless of whether they connect to his story. The hyperactive musical score and severe design sometimes overshadow the events on screen, and the film often seems like a random assemblage of ideas from other films, like a psychological thriller broken down and re-written by an AI program.
No matter how excessively baroque the story becomes, Lanthimos handles everything with curious ambivalence, treating the performers like expressionless puppets. Everyone speaks slowly and without emotion, as if they were being fed their lines through an earpiece or learning them phonetically. While the characters in The Lobster spoke like that too, that was a fable about spiritually broken people living in a dystopia. You could accept it as part of the generic ambiance. Here it just seems odd.
Dialogue is blunt, to the point of meaninglessness. Farrell talks about wristwatches and watch bands. Menstruation and masturbation are brought in as conversation starters. Keoghan offers a monologue about his method of eating spaghetti. Every line and monologue is delivered with confidence, yet the characters don't even seem to be aware of what they're saying.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is methodical, even artful in a clumsy way, its outer surface of almost comical blandness hiding its misanthropic core. Lanthimos, like other self-important European filmmakers sometimes lumped together as the New Cruelty movement, enjoys the abuse and torture of his characters, while pretending that something else — society, or perhaps you, the voyeuristic viewer — is forcing his hand. It's a sham; the deadpan irony of his film should not be confused with a moral perspective. It's shock value made banal, and the deliberateness of its execution isn't enough to render it meaningful.