As its title seems to suggest, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” by Yorgos Lanthimos, director of the Oscar-nominated film “The Lobster,” takes an unsettling – yet balanced – dive into the themes of revenge and sacrifice lurking beneath the surface of innocence.
Renowned cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Steven Murphy, played by Colin Farrell, appears to have an idyllic life with his wife, Anna, an ophthalmologist played by Nicole Kidman. The couple has two kids, the accomplished, just-coming-of-age Kim, played by Raffey Cassidy, and her rebellious younger brother Bob, played by Sunny Suljic. The family lives in an expensively furnished and meticulously ordered home.
The veneer of perfection quickly fades as Steven’s hidden mentorship of Martin, the son of an old patient, is revealed. The supposedly well-intentioned relationship between the two sets the scene for the subsequent deterioration of the Murphy family’s perfection and Martin’s composure.
Although Steven’s life seems perfect, certain moments in the film suggest otherwise; viewers will not be able shake the uneasiness lurking in the back of their minds until the truth is revealed at the end of the film.
“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” intends to unsettle the viewer and it does its job effectively. Through precise imagery, intelligent dialogue, strong performances and stellar camerawork, the film provokes core questions of morality that concern concepts like blame and justice. Although the film borders on awkward or overdramatic at times, these moments are purely intentional. Their purpose may or may not be clear, but their effect is profound. The build is slow, but the tension is electric.
The film starts with an extended shot of a black screen as operatic music builds in the background, as if a grand tragedy awaits, before the sterile shot of a beating heart covers the screen. Surrounded by green surgical fabric and pinned downed by metal bars, the close-up shot of the heart continues for an uncomfortably long time as only a pair of man’s hands briefly enter the frame. The gruesomeness begins early and leaves nothing to the imagination.
Finally cutting from the image of the unveiled organ, the camera transitions to Steven, removing his bloodied surgical scrubs and gloves, throwing everything into the trash — signaling that the film is stepping out of the surreal realm of the surgery into its plot.
The first conversation in the film establishes many of its recurring motifs. Steven discusses watches with his anesthesiologist while walking down a long hallway. Both speak in clinical, monotone sentences that feel so particular and unusual that there is immediately an unsettling and anxious mood.
Farrell’s character especially appears devoid of emotion, even when his actions suggest incredible anger. This scene is set against a fluid shot of a camera rapidly moving backward as if the characters are about to run into it.
Lanthimos’ script, co-written with Efthymis Filippou, includes characters speaking in monotone, odd sentences that eventually develop a rhythm that require great actors to understand and deliver properly. In this film, conversations are centered on uncomfortable topics, like Kim starting her period, that would never normally be discussed in day-to-day conversation, and linger throughout the film. These conversations make the film feel surreal despite the fact that the film takes place in modern times.
The oddity of the dialogue becomes particularly apparent in scenes between Steven and his mentee, Martin. At first, it appears that Martin tries to mirror Steven’s personality in order to impress him, but it quickly begins to feel sinister. Steven speaks in careful, clinical sentences and so does Martin. Steven smokes, so Martin smokes. Steven invites Martin to dinner, so Martin invites Steven to dinner. Martin’s eagerness quickly starts to feel like an obsession. Something is clearly wrong, although viewers cannot quite understand what until later.
Farrell and Kidman lead the film with strong performances as husband and wife. They both pull off the clipped dialogue while remaining compelling as the film falls into hopelessness. They seem to almost be at quiet war with each other, which produces an eerie tension.
Barry Keoghan, who acted in “Dunkirk” as George, a teenage civilian caught in war, also delivers a strong performance as Martin. He balances feelings of pain that Martin experiences with truly terrifying elements, capable of making an adult break down in tears.
The film makes effective use of high camera angles, continuous shots and silhouetted characters to create an anxious mood. In evoking emotion, the camera makes as much of an impact as the dialogue does.
The film preys on deep parts of humanity’s moral core, yet does not purely rely on shock value. It is well acted, well written and precisely shot. Lanthimos has another success in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” an intense dramatic horror that messes with the head and lingers in the mind long after the screen fades to black.