The Killing of a Sacred Deer begins with a close-up of a beating human heart, exposed to delicate probing from a surgeon’s scalpel. I involuntarily flinched, but still couldn’t avert my eyes: it’s an image of stark provocation yet savagely compelling.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ film is an unsettling ride, a nightmarish portrait of some of the worst fears that can face a family played out as a suburban horror movie. It’s also darkly funny, impeccably acted, keenly moving and directed with assurance, precision and daring authority. You might want to look away from the terrible consequences of Lanthimos and co-screenwriter Efthymis Filippou’s scenario, but the film transfixes you like few others this year.
The scalpel belongs to Dr Steven Murphy, an Irish heart surgeon based in a Cincinnati hospital and played by Colin Farrell (even better here than he was in Lanthimos’ last film, the absurdist comedy The Lobster). Outwardly Steven is doing well: happily married to Anna (Nicole Kidman, on terrific form), with a teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and younger child Bob (Sunny Suljic), all living comfortably in a big detached house in one of the city’s more affluent neighbourhoods.
Who is Martin, and what is his relationship to Steven? Is there a sexual aspect? Is blackmail involved?
But there are hints of trouble from the start. From the looming wide-angle shots that capture the action to the deadpan, slightly askew dialogue (a brilliantly droll exchange about wristwatches is one of the film’s running concerns), there’s an insinuating anxiety, a vague sense of threat underpinning The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
That unease takes human form when Martin appears, a young man whom Steven is in the habit of meeting privately. Brilliantly played with a mixture of insolence and guilelessness by Barry Keoghan, Martin has a strange hold over Steven. The doctor buys him a gift (a watch, naturally). He is strenuously polite to him, even when he turns up during his shift at the hospital. He invites him over for a family dinner (during which Kim develops a crush on the young man). Who is Martin, and what is his relationship to Steven? Is there a sexual aspect? Is blackmail involved?
It turns out that Martin is the son of a former patient, who died when he was on Steven’s operating table. Was Steven at fault? Pointed references to the doctor’s drinking habits of old suggest alcohol may have been involved, and it’s clear Martin thinks Steven responsible. Steven’s son falls ill, the victim of a mysterious paralysis; he refuses to eat, and as he weakens further his sister Kim becomes prey to the same condition.
Though there’s no adequate medical diagnoses to any of this, Martin offers his own explanation: these life-threatening ailments are payback for Steven’s past sins, and things will deteriorate further unless the doctor submits to an ultimatum Martin issues. I won’t spoil that here, but I can say that the film is loosely indebted to a Euripides’ tragedy, and the dilemma that Steven must confront has the stark, unconsoling, elemental brutality of ancient drama.
What unravels is fierce and bleak, an unblinking, wickedly honest depiction of the raw power-games and bonds of love at play within an ‘ordinary’ family unit under extraordinary circumstances (especially when wife, daughter and son compete for Steven’s affection to avoid a horrible fate). The results are intense and disquieting, rippled with moments of tar-black humour: this is bracingly bold filmmaking, easily one of the year’s most compelling movies.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is in cinemas from November 3