The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Updated: Feb 5, 2020
Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a respected cardiovascular surgeon married to ophthalmologist Anna (Nicole Kidman, a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee this year for Lion) and father to teenager Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and young Bob (Sunny Suljic). He also has a strange friendship with teenager Martin (Barry Keoghan, seen earlier this year in Christopher Nolan’s war epic Dunkirk), whose father died a few years earlier. Martin now lives with his lonely mother (Alicia Silverstone) and seems unhealthily interested in Steven and his family. Even though he seems polite, something is a little off about Martin. In fact, something seems a little off about the Murphy family as well.
This is the setup for The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a film that starts off strange, becomes intense, and ends on a disturbing note, while maintaining its mysteries all the way through. Some of its secrets are revealed on the way, but not all, which makes the story even more unsettling. It is an uncompromising psychological thriller.
The film is the work of director/writer/producer Yorgos Lanthimos who also directed Farrell in 2015’s odd and darkly funny satire The Lobster. That film was set in a world where single people get turned into wild animals if they are unable to find a mate in thirty days. The only other of his films I have seen is 2009’s Dogtooth, about a family whose parents keep their children isolated in their house while misinforming them about the rest of the world. His films exist in the world of metaphor, are dark, surreal, very original and certainly not for all tastes. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (117 minutes without the end credits) may actually be his most accessible film thus far. That says something because this film is bewildering at times and not an easy watch.
At the beginning, The Killing of Sacred Deer seems mildly familiar. A husband and wife who outwardly lead a great life find their perfect veneer peeled off after the arrival of a troubled outsider. But only the vague outline of its story is familiar. Lanthimos tells it in a way it has not been told before. Sometimes his approach is successful and sometimes it takes me out of the story.
He does a great job building suspense, especially early on. He creates tension through the music, which seems to know that something bad is going on before the characters do. He also does subtle things with the camerawork by cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis (who also worked on Dogtooth and The Lobster). Some of the shots are held a little longer than usual and the actors are filmed from unusual angles or in long shot when a close-up would be expected. Whatever other tiny tricks Lanthimos uses, he is very successful at maintaining an unsettling tone throughout the entire film.
He is less successful, however, at creating an emotional connection to the characters. Granted, that may be an intentional decision on his part. One of the oddest things about his films is how little his characters tend to outwardly emote even under very emotional circumstances. The Murphy’s are a very composed family and even when things unravel for them they remain relatively calm. Martin is creepy, but not in any way you would expect. There is no yelling or threatening. He is very calm and straightforward. This lack of expressiveness is effective for a while and helps maintain the possibility that the troubles plaguing the Murphy family are their own doing, and not Martin’s. But in the end it became cold and distancing. I was intrigued by the story, but never became truly involved in the characters.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer worked on me up to a point. It is a continually surprising and intriguing film, but the experience of watching it left me slightly cold. It is a good film with some very effective and disturbing moments. It is very possible that the things that bothered me about it will not bother you.
3½ out of 5
Colin Farrell as Steven Murphy
Barry Keoghan as Martin
Nicole Kidman as Anna Murphy
Raffey Cassidy as Kim Murphy
Sunny Suljic as Bob Murphy
Alicia Silverstone as Martin’s Mother
Bill Camp as Matthew
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou