Rest assured that no deer, sacred or otherwise, was harmed in the making of this film, the follow-up to The Lobster from director Yorgos Lanthimos. The title is apparently inspired by the mythic Greek tale of Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon, the king who led the Greeks into battle against the Trojans. When Agamemnon accidentally kills a sacred deer belonging to Artamis – the goddess of hunting, the wilderness and wild animals – Iphigenia’s life is sacrificed in retaliation for her father’s indiscretion. This is, essentially, the plot for The Killing of a Sacred Deer, with the series of events transplanted to a contemporary setting where Agamemnon is now Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a skilled surgeon who finds himself faced with an impossible decision in the aftermath of an operation that resulted in the death of a patient.
There is a sense of unease from the moment the movie opens due to the stilted, monotone dialogue delivery and the distinct, almost robotic, lack of emotion that pervades every conversation. Sensing an opportunity to atone for what we later learn may have been an act of negligence, Steven has befriended Martin (Barry Keoghan), the son of the man who died in surgery. Something seems off-kilter with the relationship between them though – and we don’t learn of the circumstances of their connection until later – with Steven introducing Martin to his colleagues as a friend of Kim’s. Steven buys gifts for Martin and, as their relationship develops, he invites him into his family circle, which includes his ophthalmologist wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and young son Bob (Sunny Suljic). There is something equally off-putting about the Murphy family dynamic and it’s not only the fact that Steven likes Anna to pretend to be under general anaesthesia when he has sex with her. It is when Bob suddenly collapses and can no longer walk that Martin’s true intentions are revealed and the tension amps up as the Murphy’s find themselves at the mercy of Martin’s merciless ultimatum.
Fresh from their work together on Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, Farrell and Kidman are the marquee names, but it is Keoghan who steals the show when it comes to performance. He is astounding as a vengeful, manipulative, pathologically resentful young man whose penchant for revenge is understandable, even if the way in which it plays out requires a considerable suspension of disbelief. The fact that Martin ingratiates himself with Steven and his family is difficult to fathom given he is such an oddball character whose best attempts at charm come across as creepy, although nobody seems to notice until it is too late. It is not surprising the Keoghan, who first came to notice as the wide-eyed innocent George in Dunkirk, has been mentioned in despatches as an awards contender though because it really is a remarkable achievement that he makes you so uncomfortable long before you actually have any tangible reason to feel that way.
Darkly comic at times and utterly bizarre at others, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is populated by characters devoid of any redeeming qualities that might engender our sympathy for their plight, yet it is somewhat mesmerising and quite poetic at times. Alicia Silverstone (Clueless, Blast from the Past) features in one scene as Martin’s mother and it certainly would have been good to see more of her character, particularly with regard to her relationship with Martin. A mixture of stylised realism and the supernatural, Lanthimos has delivered a film that is both horrifying and hilarious in its satirical skewering of the ‘perfect family’. Much like his previous work, this will no doubt leave some amazed and others appalled and that, it seems, is exactly how he likes it.