The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ follow up to 2015’s The Lobster, will likely be one of the most divisive movies of the year, which is truly saying something in the wake of all uproar over mother! just a few weeks back. In many ways, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is much more disturbing than Darren Aronofsky’s horrific black comedy — with Sacred Deer, there is no tidy allegory to tie all the madness together, which makes what plays out all the more inexplicable and disconcerting.
Lanthimos reunites with The Lobster star Colin Farrell who plays Steven, a successful open heart surgeon. His wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) is an ophthalmologist, and the couple has a pair of teenage children. It seems to be an idyllic life, but it very quickly becomes clear that there is something sinister simmering under the surface of Steven’s cozy existence.
Steven is carrying on a sort of mentorship and friendship with a young teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan), the son of a man who died during an operation Steve was performing. Right from the get-go something is off about their friendship — they only meet in a local dinner, and Steven introduces Martin as a friend of his daughter (which he is not). Steven then decides to invite Martin over to meet his wife and children — his daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) is immediately attracted to this mysterious teenager in her home, and her younger brother Bob (Sunny Suljic) is also taken with this older-brother figure.
Things then start to get very weird. Bob wakes up and has suddenly lost the use of his legs. While Steve tries to find a medical explanation for the sudden illness, Kim also falls sick. Without delving too deep into spoiler territory, Martin attempts to make Steve face a choice no parent should have to make, and the film spirals down a terrifying rabbit hole as the family tries to fight off the mysterious illness slowly killing their children.
In essence, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a meditation on power and medical certainty. Steve is a man in charge of all times. As a doctor he plays God, literally saving people with his hands. Even at home he needs to stay in power — his sex life revolves around Anna pretending to be under anaesthesia while he takes advantage of her “unconscious” body. There is a particular fetishization of his powerful hands (including a scene-stealing moment from the sorely missed Alicia Silverstone as Martin’s mother), but Martin is the ultimate foil, showing Steve just how powerless he truly is in the face of the unknowable.
Lanthimos seems to delight in tearing down Steve for his hubris, and he ultimately suffers plenty of karmic payback throughout the film. Farrell imbues Steve with a stoic anger that takes its time to bubble over, and delivers one of the strongest performances of his career. Nicole Kidman is also great as the tight-lipped society wife who only wants the best for her family, and Barry Keoghan is mesmerizing as creepy harbinger of madness that descends on the family.
Beautifully shot and featuring some stunning Kubrickian roving camera work, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is one of the most gorgeous movies of the year, a claustrophobic and completely disturbing horror film that is destined to provoke a visceral response from the audience.
Unlike the throw-everything-at-the-wall madness of mother!, Lanthimos’ film remains methodical and straight-forward even as it becomes increasingly horrific and insane. This is a movie destined to haunt you long after you leave the theatre, even as it leaves you scratching your head looking for answers that Lanthimos is happy to never provide. I can’t wait to see it again.