Do you ever walk into a movie just thinking, “I know I’m going to like this”? The cast, the director, the overall vibe just seems perfectly tailored to your interests and you just know that, barring a total disaster, you’re going to like what you see.
That was me with The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the latest collaboration from Yorgos Lanthimos and Colin Farrell. The two previously worked together on 2015’s The Lobster, a film that I went into knowing nothing about and walked out a True Believer. I’d seen Lanthimos’ Oscar-nominated film Dogtooth and really enjoyed it, but The Lobster just sang for me. It was wacky, wild, hilarious, dark and amazing. (I even loved it despite the projector messing up at my screening, where it went back and forced us to re-watch the dead dog scene again — now that’s saying something). Suffice to say, Killing of a Sacred Deer had a lot of hype to live up to.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer sees a distant, disaffected surgeon (Colin Farrell) carryon on a close, undefined relationship with a boy (Barry Keoghan). They meet at diners and go for walks and make small talk (in that distant, monotone-Lanthimos style), and at first, their relationship is secret. Later, Farrel’s character Steven invites the boy, Martin to meet his family: wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), 12-year-old son Bob (Sunny Suljic) and 14-year-old daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy). Martin reciprocates and invites Steven to meet his recently widowed mother (Alicia Silverstone). Everything is cordial and polite, but strange: Martin is clingy and intense, and Steven presents him with gifts. There’s a sense of dread as you watch these abnormal scenes of normalcy — are they having an affair? Is Martin his secret lovechild? — as you await the reveal, and the suspense builds and builds.
Of course, it’s not as straightforward as an affair or a secret lovechild. It’s an absurd Greek tragedy about a boy out for revenge.
Martin’s father died on Steven’s operating table, and Martin blames him for the death. (Considering Steven had a drinking problem, he might not be wrong). Martin placed a curse on the whole family: one by one, they will become paralyzed from the waist down, lose their appetite, begin to bleed from their eyes and then die. The only way to stop it is if Steven chooses one family member to kill to save the others. It’s an eye for an eye, in Martin’s mind, taking one of Steven’s family members in return for his father’s life.
How is Martin able to curse this family? Who cares! Certainly not Lanthimos, who not only never explains it but never has anyone question it once they know the truth. The why or the how aren’t interesting to him, it’s about analyzing the characters and watched how they react. If a man had to kill one of his family members to save the others, would he do it? How would he choose? How would the family act, knowing their fate? Would they offer themselves up to be sacrificed, or would they try and through the others under the bus?
In this bleak world, they obviously don’t react nobly. Steven goes to his children’s school to see if one had better grades or behaviour than the others. The kids, paralyzed in their beds, bicker back and forth about how they’re the favourite and will be spared. And Anna whispers to Steven at night “I mean, we can always make another kid.” It’s darkly comedic, but unlike in The Lobster, it’s brief reprieve from the rest of the film. The absurd comedy doesn’t take hold of the story, but simply enhances it. Everything that’s happening is so insane, you have to be able to laugh at least once to break the tension.
Farrell and Lanthimos have proven themselves to be a perfect pair: Farrell’s deadpan delivery is pitch perfect, but his performance here isn’t simply a reprisal of The Lobster’s David. Beneath the monotone dialogue, David is a tragic sad sack where Steven is angry and uncaring. Kidman is a perfect addition to the mix, leaning into the icy mother type that she’s utilized in films like Eyes Wide Shut and Stoker. She and Farrell almost come across like a normal couple while attending functions and dinners, but when they’re home alone in the bedroom, you see how strange they truly are (their sex life consists of her pretending to be dead, so there’s that).
Barry Keoghan is a real standout in the film, making Martin one of the more memorable characters of the year. He starts off polite and awkward, and if this were any other movie, he’d be likable. But then he’s a real threat, and becomes intimidating and dangerous, holding his own against both Farrell and Kidman. It was a surprising performance considering the only other work of note on Keoghan’s resume is Dunkirk, where he played possibly the lamest character in the whole movie.
If any of Lanthimos’ works have had issues for you — too violent, too strange, too cold — then you might want to skip Killing of a Sacred Deer, as it doubles down on all of it. Martin makes menacing threats while slurping spaghetti, people talk about menstruation and body hair like they do the weather, kids are constantly in danger and there’s a story about a boy masturbating his father. This movie is going to be divisive and for many, it won’t amount to anything more than a bizarre and uncomfortable experience.
But for those of us where this movie works, it works. It’s a tense and suspenseful thriller with heightened atmosphere and great performances from actors who are willing to give themselves over to Lanthimos’ style.
Love it or hate it, you’ll never listen to Ellie Goulding the same way again.