The Killing of a Sacred Deer begins with a disturbing image — an off-putting close-up of some glistening blob of pulsating viscera. It’s only when the camera pulls back slowly that it’s revealed to be a human heart — set off by medical clamps and carefully tended to by a surgeon. It’s a relief — the horrific is rendered normal and affirming — but viewers should expect the opposite trajectory in Yorgos Lanthimos’ new slo-mo psychological horror film. The normal will be zoomed in on until it’s revealed to be horrific.
And few normal institutions merit more admiration than the perfect upper-middle-class American family. The Murphys live in a luxe suburban home. Dad Steven (Colin Farrell) is a heart surgeon; mom Anna (Nicole Kidman) is an ophthalmologist; 14-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy) is in the school choir; and tween son Bob (Sunny Suljic) has “great hair.”
But almost immediately, something feels off. Outside of work, Steven is meeting a teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan), and the unexplained encounters feel both intimate and forced. (It doesn’t help that Steven’s go-to for casual talk revolves around wrist-watch bands.) Part of this is due to the intentionally flat delivery of all the dialogue. But the story gradually reveals that, in fact, things are not well, and a mid-film medical crisis acutely lays bare the shaky morality underpinning the family.
I’ll say no more — see for yourself, though viewers should be cautioned that this film isn’t for everyone. Lanthimos made 2015’s dystopic dark comedy The Lobster, which polarized folks, and viewers could find this film more challenging still. It’s slow, light on plot, and set on dismantling a number of institutions held sacred. (The “sacred deer” of the title refers to the Greek myth of Iphigenia.)
But it’s a nervy work, exhilarating in its refusal to be more accommodating. The actors are great, with both Farrell and Kidman nailing the tricky space between affectedly bland and seething with dangerous repressed emotions. The real break-out performance is by Keoghan, the young Irish actor who earlier this year portrayed the sweet anxious teen on the fishing boat in Dunkirk. In Deer, he is an exposed beating heart in human form — unmoored, unsettling and strangely powerful. Even when his full story is revealed — and he even cops to being a metaphor of sorts — Martin’s icy fury doesn’t undermine the character’s pathos.
For those with a darker sense of humor and an affinity for Lanthimos’ style, there are some wry moments of humor, including the film’s outrageous denouement. There’s an amusing bizarreness to this baroque, primal story playing out in the gleaming sterile hallways of a big-city hospital or in the Murphy’s just-so living room. But some horrors are truly inescapable, unchallenged by modern medicine or family cohesion.