Yorgos Lanthimos’s taboo horror The Killing of a Sacred Deer moves with a somnambulist’s certainty along its own distinctive spectrum of weird. It’s an intriguing, disturbing, amusing twist on something which in many ways could be a conventional horror-thriller from the 1970s or 1980s, or even a bunny-boiler nightmare from the 90s. There is a strident orchestral score, nightmarish fish-eye shooting angles, down low and up high, and people walking along corridors in such a way that makes forward movement feel like slo-mo falling.
The plot concerns a handsome, successful professional man and his beautiful wife and family, all of them coming apart at the seams in the face of a voodoo menace. This is a movie which has a clearer, straighter sense of shape and purpose – and seems to me to be therefore more successful – than his widely admired previous picture, The Lobster, which ran out of ideas well before the end.
Lanthimos’s trademark deadpan borderline-robotic dialogue and behaviour are in evidence here, in various degrees of subtlety and overtones, setting the mood music of disquiet. Colin Farrell plays a hugely successful cardiac surgeon with a stylish wife (Nicole Kidman) and two charming children, Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy).
But there is something strange about this surgeon. He speaks with withdrawn, introspective mannerisms and sing-song intonations and there is something of OCD in his preoccupation with various types of expensive watch. He has a very happy marriage and an agreeable, prestigious professional existence. But there are tensions. He has evidently had to quit drinking, and his wife makes sure he sticks to that, to the extent of rather putting a dampener on a black-tie evening at which he is the keynote speaker. He has a curious taste in sex: he tells his wife “general anaesthetic” and she must then undress and lie on the bed as if unconscious. She consents to this private, conjugal duty with decorous calm.
And the surgeon has what appears to be a best friend: a 16-year-old boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan), with whom he likes to hang out at a local diner or down at the river, just chatting in the same mannered way as this teenager. Martin comes to the hospital to drop in on the surgeon – to his colleagues’ polite surprise and discomfiture – and just hang out with him. The surgeon gives him inappropriately expensive presents and even invites Martin to his home for supper and to spend time with his own children. Martin returns the favour by inviting the surgeon to his considerably humbler home to have dinner with his single mom: a very welcome return from Alicia Silverstone, doing very well with a small role.
The surgeon’s interest in Martin does not appear to be sexual, though sexuality is everywhere and nowhere in this deeply transgressive relationship. Yet it becomes clear that it is a relationship based on guilt, like the aftermath of an unhappy affair, and that Martin is angry at the surgeon and what this man has done and what he now owes him. Martin demands of this man a forfeit, a sacrifice, like the killing in the title, and says that if his demands are not met, terrible supernatural things will happen to his family. And so Farrell remains in angry denial until he he faces up to the fact that this boy’s threats are real.
As in all his best work, Lanthimos is brilliant at summoning up a whole created world and immersing us in it. But its weirdness has a double meaning: it has a stylised element of absurdism and it is also a plausible expression of denial. It is intriguing to imagine John Carpenter or Brian De Palma or Richard Donner directing this script. Perhaps it would not look so very different, although De Palma or Carpenter might want the ending to be accelerated, or even rewritten to accommodate the twist that appeared to be promised by the protagonist’s interesting theory that the surgeon is never to blame for a failed operation, and that it is always the anaesthetist’s fault. What Lanthimos does is lead us into his own kind of eerie forest clearing in which this deer is to be horribly slain.