Yorgos Lanthimos’ chilling and absurd horror mystery is deeply entrenched in Greek tragedy and metaphor. Combine this with the director’s unique cadence, and you have a strange film guaranteed to leave audiences divisive and pondering just what it was that they saw. At the center of this strange mystery is Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a surgeon who has it all; great career, two beautiful children, and doting wife Anna (Nicole Kidman). His perfect life becomes unraveled, however, when the teenage boy he’s taken under his wing starts to threaten his family.
From the offset, Lanthimos knocks the viewer off kilter with the absurdist dialogue and the way in which he instructs his actors to deliver their lines. There’s a very offbeat humor about Steven and his family’s idyllic life. Enter Martin, a 16-year old that’s befriended Steven prior to the film’s opening. Martin seems a bit off, but genial enough. It’s quickly revealed that Steven has taken the young man under his wing out of guilt; Martin’s father died on Steven’s operating table a few years ago and Martin believes him responsible. One day, after Steven’s plied him with many gifts and has introduced him to the family, Martin delivers a deadly ultimatum. Shortly thereafter, Steven’s young son loses mobility in his legs, spinning into a tense mystery of just who Martin is and what exactly is happening.
This is a cast of immeasurable talent. Farrell as the Murphy patriarch begins as likeable but quickly devolves into slimy thanks to his continued poor choices. Kidman is brave as the mother willing to do what’s necessary to save her family, all while never losing her head. Yet, it’s upcomer Barry Keoghan as Martin that’s utterly captivating. Martin is so strange and unsettling as the predator of the Murphy family that it’s otherworldly. Thimios Bakatakis’ crisp cinematography only contributes to that Greek tragedy aesthetic.
The more we spend time with Martin the more enigmatic he becomes. The more time runs down on Martin’s ultimatum, the more desperate everyone becomes, tightening tension until you’re out of breath. The climax is both shocking and apropos, yet leaves you with profound questions on science and the supernatural. Truthfully, this is a film that took me a while to digest, to interpret both how I felt about it and the events that occurred.
Lanthimos refuses to hand hold his audience in any way, urging a distinctive emotional journey instead. There are no actual deer in the film; it’s a metaphorical title that alludes to the Greek myth of King Agamemnon. According to myth, Agamemnon slayed Greek goddess Artemis’ sacred deer, and as a consequence, was forced to choose a daughter to sacrifice. Steven’s slaying of the metaphorical sacred deer happens prior to the events of the film; so this isn’t a spoiler. It’s only the most basic of what Lanthimos has laid out as a visual, emotional, and intellectual feast for his audience to chew on.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a challenging film. It’s stunning, chilling, and unique in its absurdist humor. Lanthimos keeps the viewer off balance through the entire run-time, making for one of the tensest and unpredictable films in a long time. It’s beautiful and tragic, but it can also be infuriating and confusing. Lanthimos has laid out a nightmarish dreamscape that’s tough to decipher but every bit worth the trip.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer screened at Fantastic Fest on September 22, and will release in theaters on November 3, 2017.