Written and directed by The Lobster‘s Yorgos Lanthimos, The Killing of a Sacred Deer stars Colin Farrell as successful cardiologist Steven Murphy who befriends the troubled Martin (Barry Keoghan), whose father died on Steven’s operating table following a car crash. Soon, Steven’s two children (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic) are inexplicably paralyzed and Martin, wanting justice for his father’s death, reveals that unless Steven kills one of his family members, including his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), then all three of them will soon die horribly.
Just like many of the characters in The Lobster, the characters of this film aren’t exactly normal and while speaking Lanthimos’ words, quite often a series of short sentences, delivered in robotic, monotone voices, very rarely showing any emotion at all on their faces, they come across as otherworldly and not exactly human. And that makes judging the performances quite a challenge because none of the characters are actually likeable and nearly all of the actors pretty much play the same type of character – typical Lanthimos ones.
After taking the lead in The Lobster, Colin Farrell seems right at home in yet another Lanthimos film and as straight-faced cardiologist Steven Murphy, he’s a strong enough leading presence and towards the beginning, is able to appear secretive and even slightly sinister. But it’s annoying that his character spends the entirety of the film in denial, delaying the inevitable as he ignores Martin and tries to find a medical solution to his family’s problem, even though it’s clearly no use and following Martin’s instruction is obviously the only way out. There’s also some wasted potential as Steven shows certain necrophiliac desires which are quickly forgotten about and he reveals some truly shocking, disturbing secrets from his childhood to his son, but it all doesn’t amount to much.
Nicole Kidman also seems right at home; at this point in time, she’s proven that she’s ideally suited to playing cold, “ice queen” characters so here, she fits right in as the unsmiling, aloof Anna. Like Farrell, she’s slightly sinister in that opening act and it seems quite possible that she’s hiding some dark secret or some such. The two kids, Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Sujlic, also throw themselves into their roles very well and are both often quite unsettling and a bit creepy, especially Cassidy whose character Kim becomes infatuated and devoted to Martin, soon talking the same way that he does and going through the whole ordeal with nonchalance and a certain unhinged, macabre quality.
But it’s perhaps Barry Keoghan who steals the show as the dangerous, unflinching, possessive Martin, giving off so many Ezra Miller/We Need to Talk About Kevin vibes (which is weird because when I saw him in Dunkirk, I did actually mistake him for Miller). He starts off as this obsessive, clingy, damaged young man, spending plenty of time with Colin Farrell’s character, giving off the impression that he wants him as a father, going to great lengths to set him up with his widowed mother (Alicia Silverstone – unsettlingly unhinged and just a little mad. The character, that is!) But as the film goes on, Martin’s revenge/justice plan is revealed and we see him as a dangerous presence indeed – hardly ever smiling as he tells Steven to kill one of his family members, unrelenting and immovable in his quest, even when being tortured and hurt. Keoghan is ideally cast as the sociopathic Martin as he is constantly unsettling, creepy, sinister and dangerous.
But it’s never revealed just how Martin was able to paralyze the kids in the first place; I know that in this kind of film, you’re meant to just accept it, that it’s all allegorical, not real, and that it’s maybe not actually important, but just how Martin was able to paralyze the kids really bugged me and it seemed like a major plot hole. Witchcraft? Derren Brown style post-hypnotic suggestion? Probably the latter since he’s able to allow Kim to briefly walk after talking to her on the phone.
All in all, the actors seem perfectly comfortable with all of the odd material but since all of the characters are cold, otherworldly and expressionless, this means that there’s no emotional core and it’s ultimately too hard to care about whether they live or die. Because The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a cold film. There’s very little heart or soul so that does indeed present a problem – if you don’t care about the well-being of the central characters, even the kids, then doesn’t that make the film slightly pointless? Why bother presenting the central character with a devastating predicament if all the characters involved are so hollow and emotionless? Don’t get me wrong, the characters aren’t unlikable per se. They’re just . . . not . . . likeable.
What Killing of a Sacred Deer does best is establishing an uncomfortable, disconcerting and tense atmosphere, mainly down to its use of music and sound; the score is reminiscent of the one heard in The Lobster and additionally, there are certain musical pieces and sounds that are incredibly jarring and relentless, providing a jump scare or two. During a few scenes set at the hospital, there appears to be the inescapable sound of a train rumbling along the tracks, played extremely loudly; it’s certainly an odd choice but these moments do contribute to the uncomfortable nature of the film. And Lanthimos manages to establish an unsettling mood in other ways as well; in addition to the barrage of sounds and the cold, otherworldly characters, he manages to use a variety of shots to keep things as odd and as unpredictable as possible, including a couple of disturbing scenes, such as ones involving an arm biting and another involving bleeding from the eyes – they probably could have taken it a bit further, ramping up the “body horror” a little bit more, but as it stands, it’s disturbing and unsettling enough – Lanthimos doesn’t cross the line.
In addition to the cold, distant nature of the film, the film eventually falters because at a certain point, it begins to ramble on and on and on, at certain points becoming frustrating and excruciating as it covers familiar ground and the pace becomes just a bit too leisurely, not doing enough to justify a two hour long runtime. I appreciate how it perhaps started off with a few false leads, wrongfooting the audience as it tries to make you guess just what kind of story it’s going to be, but the plot isn’t as original or as strange as The Lobster and after a while, it runs out of steam and winds up a tad incoherent, not making enough sense.
I guess that Yorgos Lanthamos just isn’t “quite my tempo”; I definitely like weird films but Killing of a Sacred Deer is just too grim and weird for the sake of being weird. It doesn’t have the wicked black comedy of The Lobster to counterbalance the overly serious, disturbing, Greek tragedy-inspired drama and overall, it’s a little pointless, a little pretentious and at times, it’s even excruciating.
It’s art. It’s subjective.