One thing very few people would ever accuse the works of Greek-born filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster) of being is accessible. Not that his films are difficult to understand or follow, but each one of them has a specific logic and set of rules that are followed by every character, until they aren’t. And that’s usually when the fun begins. Even his characters’ delivery is carefully crafted, so that it seems emotionless at times. But when you actually listen to what it is they’re saying, you realize there’s a depth and passion being deliberately suppressed.
All that said, his latest work, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is actually fairly straight-forward and, yes, dare I say, accessible. This is not to say you won’t be shocked and perhaps even put off by his chosen story. But if you let it in and get used to its rhythms, you’ll likely be quite pleased with the results.
We’re dropped into the life of Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a cardiovascular surgeon, married to his ophthalmologist wife Anna (Farrell’s The Beguiled co-star, Nicole Kidman, continuing her streak of fantastic performances) and their two children, 14-year-old daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and 12-year-old son Bob (Sunny Suljian). But this polished and perfect family has its darker corners and mostly harmless secrets, including a curious relationship between Steven and an odd young man named Martin (Dunkirk’s Barry Keoghan), who lives with his single mother (Alicia Silverstone) and seems to be something of a mentee of Steven’s. The good doctor gives the kid inappropriately expensive gifts and a great deal of his time, and we’re at a loss to figure out why.
Before long Steven brings Martin to the house to meet the family and have dinner, during which Kim takes an immediate interest in him, which only makes the entire situation just a little extra creepy. Martin insists on returning the favor by inviting Steven to dinner at his home, where his mother makes it clear she has a lustful crush on the man, much to Martin’s approval. And it’s around this time that Martin’s menacing intentions become clear, and he reveals the actual connection that he and Steven have. Worse still, he puts a type of curse on the Murphy family swearing that both children and then Anna will contract a mysterious illness that first paralyzes them and eventually will kill them all unless Steven picks one to sacrifice (I don’t to ruin the reason for this specific punishment, but there’s a logic to it, as you’d expect from Lanthimos).
The Killing of a Sacred Deer glides from thriller to mystery to family drama to wicked comedy, sometimes within the same scene. Nothing plays out exactly how you think it will, and with Martin’s affable, matter-of-fact personality, you almost don’t notice how horrific what he’s proposing is until you take a second to reflect upon his words. Naturally, the Murphys attempt to find a workaround to Martin’s request or a cure to this unknown ailment that strikes the children almost immediately, but nothing works, and we begin to wonder if there is a supernatural element to some aspect of the movie (a question that is never really answered, nor does it need to be).
Lanthimos is so deeply committed to his concept, atmosphere and general sense of weirdness that it’s almost infectious. The Lobster was one of my absolute favorite films of last year, so the fact that the filmmaker is not only talented but also prolific (he has both a TV series on AMC and his next film already shot) is all the more exciting. Despite the possibility of a dead child or two by the end, Sacred Deer isn’t nearly as shocking as some of his other works, but it’s equally captivating and one of the most intriguing works of the season.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.