Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous film, The Lobster is a real divider of opinion. Many people love this dark dystopian comedy, while others just can’t get their heads around the surreal craziness of the plot. I suspect the same fate awaits The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which, while it heads into much darker territory than its predecessor, still offers us a story that has very little to do with any kind of perceived reality. And yet, for all that, this bizarre fable about the nature of sacrifice is a powerfully compelling tale that exerts a real grip.
Heart surgeon Steven Murphy (a hirsute Colin Farrell) enjoys a successful career. Married to ophthalmologist, Anna (Nicole Kidman), and the father of Kim (Raffey Cassiday) and Bob (Sunny Suljic), he seems content with his life but talks only in the most banal terms about the dullest subjects – an early discussion with an anaesthesiologist about a watch that Steven is thinking about buying sets the tone.
We soon learn, however, that Steven has a secret. He is meeting regularly with teenager, Martin (Barry Keoghan) and, inevitably, we suspect that there’s something sinister going on. But the film is full of misconceptions. Martin, it turns out, is the son of a man who died on Steven’s operating table and the surgeon is simply trying to be nice to him, possibly because he feels a sense of guilt about what happened. Steven, we discover, is fond of a drink and may not have been entirely sober when he went into the operating theatre. As the film develops, Martin begins to inveigle his way more and more into the Murphy household and even insists that Steven should come to his house and meet his mother (an unsettling cameo from Alicia Silverstone), who Martin claims ‘has feelings’ for Steven. But then Martin says something that will change Steven’s life forever. It’s in the nature of a prediction – and means the surgeon having to make the most difficult decision of his life…
This is a fascinating tale, expertly told. Though it has no rational explanation, there’s a mounting sense of dread throughout and the story (co-written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou) seems to delight in exploding received wisdoms about how people will act under certain conditions. A mother will always put her children first, right? Siblings will always look out for each other, yes? Well, in this film’s worldview, nothing can be taken for granted.
If I’m honest, the movie overstays its welcome somewhat. With twenty minutes cut from the running time, this would have been stronger, but nevertheless there’s still plenty here to enjoy, not least Keoghan’s wonderfully dead-eyed performance as the teenage boy who comes to exercise complete control over the Murphys. Oh, that title, by the way, refers to the myth of Iphigenia, so those of you who have studied the classics might have some intimation about where the story is headed.
As I said at the beginning, some people will inevitably hate this film. For me, though not perfect, it’s even stronger than The Lobster, and I for one will be fascinated to see where this exciting and highly original film-maker goes next.