Grief. Love. The desire to protect one's family. Nothing is sacred in the films of Yorgos Lanthimos, and nor should it be. The ringleader of Greek cinema's so-called weird wave, the writer-director is adept at exposing the pretence and routine at the foundations of our society, and revealing the transactional side of modern-day life. While completely his own distinctive creations, Lanthimos' absurd, audacious movies recall the work of auteurs like Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and Michael Haneke, as he strikes at the very heart of what it means to be alive. Driven by needs and wants, and self-serving to a truly horrifying degree, his vision of humanity as seen in The Killing of a Sacred Deer is unmistakably bleak.
When cardiologist Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) and teenager Martin (Barry Keoghan) meet for a meal, their conversation is distant but well-meaning. They're not close, though the right sentiments appear to be in place — a kindly adult looking out for a somewhat wayward youth. But before long, Martin's demand for Steven's attention increases, intruding into the doctor's professional and domestic bliss. The boy comes over for dinner, and meets Steven's ophthalmologist wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), and children Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy). Soon after, Steven dines at Martin's house, fending off some obviously orchestrated advances from his mother (Alicia Silverstone). Then Bob mysteriously falls ill — and Martin issues an ominous warning.
The awkwardness you feel when someone answers a question a little too brusquely: that is Lanthimos' domain. So too is the sense of unease that lingers when you know, deep down, that you're just going through the motions with your loved ones, friends and colleagues. Like Dogtooth, Alps and The Lobster before it, the filmmaker's latest is filled with examples that show how automatic, insincere responses, designed to help us get what we want with minimal fuss, comprise most of our daily encounters. That said, The Killing of a Sacred Deer also comes with a particularly chilling twist. As conveyed through the twisting narrative as well as Lanthimos' aesthetic trademarks — glossy visuals, an icy mood and purposefully stilted performances — the leap from pleasantries and small talk to making tragic, life-altering decisions is a very short one indeed.
Of course, there's more to the movie than the plot laid out above — one which, at the thematic level, smartly and savagely toys with accountability, sacrifice and revenge, and is partially inspired by Greek mythology. But discovering where Lanthimos takes this dark, discomforting tale is part of the unsettling joy of watching. There's not only tension and intrigue in the film's terse exchanges and increasingly brutal stakes, but ample black comedy as well. The Killing of a Sacred Deer presents a moral quandary that turns commonplace interactions into a map of how ludicrous, cruel and calculating our existence can be, while also laying bare the costs and consequences of our actions. Faced with that reality, the audience can do little more than laugh.
Thankfully, the cast couldn't be better suited to guiding viewers through this uniquely unnerving, often amusing experience. At times, Lanthimos shoots them from a distance, dwarfed by picture-perfect hospital hallways and suburban houses. In other moments, they're so close that you can almost feel the rapid beating of their pulse. Like their director, Farrell, Kidman and Keoghan all find the sweet spot between detached and invested, as though they're navigating a hazy waking nightmare. Still, as fantastic as the work of the two big-name stars may be, viewers will want to keep their eyes firmly on the young man from Dunkirk. Mixing menace and vulnerability with near-alarming precision, Keoghan is undoubtedly a star in the making — and here, he will chill you to the bone. You won't forget his performance easily, nor the jaw-dropping film in which it's found.