Perfection is only one small crack away from ugliness.
Steven (Colin Farrell) and Anna (Nicole Kidman) Murphy have the perfect family. He a successful cardiologist, she an ophthalmologist with a thriving practice, with two children (Raffey Cassidy and Bill Camp) that do their chores without complaints and don’t give their parents much trouble outside regular puberty fare. The Murphys might be into some weird stuff in the bedroom, but otherwise family life is a good step or two up from that in Dogtooth. Outside work, Steven from time to time meets Martin (Barry Keoghan), the son of a former patient of his who died on his operating table. Steven almost treats Martin like his own son, bestowing him with gifts and introducing him to his family. The kid may be a little needy and pushy, and a meeting with Martin’s mom (an unrecognizable Alicia Silverstone) puts Steven in an awkward situation, but it is all benign enough to not disrupt his perfect life. Until his youngest succumbs to a mysterious paralysis of the legs, and Martin makes Steven an offer to repair an old mistake, forcing him to make a devilish choice.
Loosely based on Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis (which also gives it its title), Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer sees the most successful director of the ‘Greek Weird Wave’ stepping away from his usual high-concept projects. That isn’t to say that the film does not contain some of his trademark ‘weirdness’, for lack of a better word, but where films like Alps and The Lobster seemed to be set in parallel universes to ours, the world of The Killing of a Sacred Deer is only a little bit outside the normal. Steven and Anna’s parenting has the faintest traces of the methods of the parents in Dogtooth, and the whole family acts a little emotionally devoid (say, 95% human), but with a little bit of effort this could be chalked up to strictness and keeping up appearances. Farrell and his deadpan delivery already proved a match with the Lanthimos universe in the director’s previous Cannes entry, and Kidman’s steely, somewhat cold demeanor proves just as good a fit, certainly as she is pushed into a more central role in the plot in the second half of the film. The way Farrell and Kidman handle the almost robotic behavior of Steven and Anna is firmly in the wheelhouse of both actors, who have excelled in performances where they don’t have to wear their emotions on their sleeves. It is Keoghan who steals the show though, as the brooding and most ‘Lanthimos weird’ of the characters. The kid’s somewhat odd looks and his dead-eyed delivery make Martin a truly unsettling antagonist.
Those who have brushed up on their ancient Greek tragedies should know what kind of impossible dilemma Martin places Steven, and later Anna, in. Faced with such a choice, Steven and Anna’s perfect world slowly starts to crumble, as all control over their life is taken away bit by bit by the diabolical Martin, certainly when the boy slyly starts playing the two adults against each other. The nature of the stranglehold Martin has over the family (the medically unexplainable paralysis, that soon also hits their teen daughter) is never revealed, which may seem as a cop-out, but adds to the mystery and shoves the film straight into psycho-horror territory. This is compounded by some of Lanthimos’ cinematographical choices, with Kubrickian ultra-wide lens pans reminiscent of The Shining or Eyes Wide Shut, and a discordant score. But overall, The Killing of a Sacred Deer owes most to the cinema of Jonathan Glazer, most notably Birth (also starring Kidman), with which it shares its eerie atmosphere. What the film lacks as opposed to Glazer’s is an emotional heart. Lanthimos consciously keeps the family at arm’s length, possibly trying to prevent the film from turning into a straightforward revenge flick. This makes it impossible to become fully invested in the family dilemma, but given the choices Steven and Anna have to make, their hell is not hard to imagine even without Lanthimos underlining it. The result is a cold and dark film that will certainly be divisive (if early tweets are anything to go by, this has already started to come to fruition), but for those willing to go for atmosphere over the cerebral, viscerality over a deeper meaning, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is two hours well spent.