Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, 2009) releases yet another unsettling drama starring Colin Farrell, who also played the role of the protagonist in his 2015 success The Lobster. In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Farrell is Steven Murphy, a wealthy cardiothoracic surgeon who seems to share a perfect family life with his beautiful, elegant wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and two bright children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). Yet despite Steven’s seemingly spotless, upper class life, it gradually becomes clear that emptiness pervades it.
Following the threads he began weaving in The Lobster, Lanthimos draws a brutal portrait of redemption that starts as awkward satire and gradually turns into a harrowing thriller. Steven befriends Martin (Barry Keoghan), a mysterious 16-year-old, and we see them have lunch together and go on walks by the river, exchanging small talk. The nature of their relationship evolves, arousing the audience’s curiosity as Steven buys Martin an expensive metal wristwatch as a gift and eventually invites him for dinner at his home to meet his family.
The film progresses into a frenzied tale, rich with metaphors about responsibility, consequence and poetic justice, when we realize that Martin’s father died on Steven’s operating table years earlier. It is only then that Martin makes his intentions clear: to avenge his father, he has cursed Steven’s entire family, which will cause them to fall ill and die unless Steven kills one of them himself, giving meaning to the film’s title.
Processional camera movements and detached angles highlight the dull, emotionless existence the characters lead, while solid performances — particularly from Keoghan, who masters the role of the disturbed teenager, aggressively emanating a sinister presence — pave the way for a tumultuous finale.
Martin’s modest apartment, in which he lives alone with his unhinged, widowed mother (Alicia Silverstone) contrasts with and pales against Steven’s privileged life, luxurious house, and (illusive) image of his healthy, happy family.
However, we are simultaneously fed similarities between the characters on two separate occasions during which Anna attempts to save herself and her family. Both scenes involve food, and illicit hollow reactions from the male protagonists. While Anna begs Martin to lift the curse, he changes the subject as he sloppily downs his plate of spaghetti, and recalls – almost impassively — the dexterity with which his father used to eat pasta.
On a separate night, as Anna prepares dinner for her husband, the weight of their impending doom hanging above their heads, Steven casually steers the conversation to his favourite dishes, asking her to make mashed potatoes the following day. This prompts Anna to accuse her husband of being “lifeless,” although she herself exhibits little emotional charge while doing so.
Therein lies the film’s central paradox, which Lanthimos establishes in the very first shot, greeting the audience with an extreme close-up of a beating heart during surgery: Steven, a heart surgeon, controls human life everyday, yet he himself is lifeless.
The director strengthens this contradiction through several detailed, illustrative examples. For instance, Steven prefers to evoke lifelessness even during the most intimate encounters he shares with his wife, asking Anna to pretend to be completely anaesthetised during sex.
The metal watch Steven buys Martin also reflects his cold, practical nature. Martin then decides to change the wristband to leather, challenging not only Steven’s power, but also his spiritless essence.
The predicament Steven faces in The Killing of a Sacred Deer mirrors that of Agamemnon in the famous Greek myth, as well Abraham’s as told in the Bible. Yet, unlike the stories from which the film draws inspiration, The Killing of a Sacred Deer offers no salvation, no lessons learnt. There is only a glaring emptiness, and a crushing death of the spirit.
Steven, for instance, does not once think of sacrificing himself for his family, while Anna argues that they should kill one of their children — they could always have more. Martin also remains unflinching in his cruelty: “It’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice,” he nonchalantly says in one scene.
Inevitably, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a rough, punishing experience. But while it may be difficult to get through, it is also difficult to forget.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer screens in Zawya Cinema on Friday 17 November at 7:00 pm, as part of the 10th Panorama of the European Film