Like the best psycho thrillers, The Killing of a Sacred Deer has a cautionary message for its viewers. In this case, take responsibility for your actions.
Successful cardiologist Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) acts as a mentor to a deceased patient’s teenaged son Martin (Barry Keoghan). They seem to get along well as Steven gives Martin expensive presents and invites him over for dinner. The pleasantry is short-lived when Martin reveals he holds Steven responsible for his father’s death. Then things escalate to a nightmarish level when Martin unveils his sinister agenda involving Steven’s family.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer peeked my interest during this year’s Cannes Film Festival. With it being a psychological horror film that was both praised and booed, I couldn’t ignore it. If I saw this film in Cannes, I would be on the praising side of the auditorium; The Killing of a Sacred Deer is an allegorical masterpiece.
Writer/director Yorgos Lathimos (last year’s overrated The Lobster) has learned from his past mistakes. In Sacred Deer, Lathimos doesn’t lose focus or his visceral impact. Lathimos makes the film’s 121-minute running time feel like a nightmarish eternity of suffering with his slow pace, long takes, morbid humor, disturbing violence, and moral ambiguity.
There isn’t a single character you can call a good person. Every character is immoral, deranged, cold, sociopathic, nihilistic, and devious. Farrell excels as Steven, selling this ordinary doctor as a two-faced scumbag. I’ll argue Steven is more a villain than Martin since Steven takes no responsibility for his actions and blames everyone for his mistakes. “An anesthesiologist can kill a patient, but a surgeon never can,” is the line that defines Steven.
Keoghan shines as Martin. He seems like a friendly-albeit-awkward kid when he gives Martin’s children Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy) presents. When Martin monologues what will happen to Bob and Kim if Martin doesn’t make a certain sacrifice, we quickly see that Martin is a young sociopath in the making. “It’s the only thing I can think of that is close to justice,” Martin says self-righteously.
It’s clear that Steven doesn’t want to befriend Martin, but he feels obligated. He also treats Martin kinder than his own son (Steven threatens to feed his son his hair in one scene). Is this because he feels guilty? Martin seems disinterested in harming Steven’s family (Martin doesn’t physically hurt anyone) and also wants Martin to be his stepdad. Would he have given Steven a pass if Steven spent more time with him?
The supporting cast are all convincing as eccentric and creepy characters. Nicole Kidman is excellent as Martin’s cold wife who clearly loves Bob more than Kim. Alicia Silverstone appears in only five minutes of screen time as Martin’s lonely and sexually aggressive mother who’s obsessed with Steven’s hands; she steals this scene from her costars.
Sacred Deer may sound like a familiar psycho thriller, but I assure you it’s not, thanks to Lathimos’ fascination with Greek Mythology and his ambition. The title is a reference to the Iphigenia myth, which tells a similar story of sacrifice and dilemmas.
This isn’t a film for the squeamish; between the film featuring a real-life heart surgery and children bleeding from their eyeballs, it’s made some viewers faint or vomit. For the transgressive film lovers who love Kubrick and avant-garde, this one’s for you.