“Our daughter started menstruating this week.”
If mother! plays like a Bible story, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a Greek tragedy.
The two don’t share many threads but they’re surely two of the most polarizing films this year. mother! shocks its audience holding a mirror up to society’s actions at-large while Sacred Deer director and co-screenwriter Yorgos Lanthimos imposes a more intimate litmus test with his signature stilted, awkward world.
Reuniting with Lanthimos after The Lobster, Colin Farrell plays Steven Murphy, a charismatic Cincinnati surgeon who suddenly befriends Martin (Barry Keoghan), a 16-year-old son of a former patient that died a decade before. Of course, by Murphy’s Law, anything that can go wrong, goes wrong.
Martin’s increasing attachment doesn’t just border on obsession but enters entirely new territory. Steven’s gifts like a four-figure watch and visits to the Blue Bird Cafe eventually lead to Martin coming over to Steven’s house to meet the family. Like a socially awkward freshman asking his crush out on a date, Martin brings Steve’s wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) a bouquet of flowers, unable to find freshly cut orchids. He also brings gifts for both children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic).
In Lanthimos’ world, this is a charming act as Anna relays to Steven. But Martin’s anything but a “charming” boy. He’s what Pinocchio would have been if he was only ever described how a real boy should but never actually saw one. There’s something more sinister at play and once Bob is paralyzed from the waist down following Martin’s visit immediately becomes suspect.
Soon after Bob’s paralyzation, Kim is on deck and Anna’s surely in the hole. It’s learned that Martin believes Steven was the cause of his father’s death. Whatever Steven did, the past (Martin) isn’t yet done with him and wants to play a game. Choose which family member to kill and it will all end.
This is the avant-garde Saw film you never knew you needed- the Sophie’s Choice for the 21st century.
There’s only one, long and ambiguous trap planted but it’s a remarkable feat Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou pulls off on the heels of an ensemble at the top of their game.
Like the duo’s previous films, there’s a certain detachment from reality where emotion has no place. Only raw exposition to invade your thoughts exists. Certainly don’t call it bland, though.
As he showed in The Lobster, Farrell has complete command of this world that goes out of its way to avoid any social artifice. Steven’s what he appears to be, a successful man whose greatest sin goes beyond arrogance. There’s something more biblical at play (and more importantly, Farrell still has part of his Lobster gut and world’s greatest beard too). Similarly, Keoghan’s Martin is at the opposite end of the spectrum. His complete control is deeply burrowed away in deceit, only to slowly unraveled to serve a supposed comeuppance by a higher power.
Aside from Lanthimos’ world as a whole, Keoghan is the real star here. With Farrell and Kidman sharing the screen, it’s not a statement to be taken lightly. Keoghan playing eight years younger taps into a special breed of a child in search of a father and puppet master that’d put John Malkovich to task.
Likewise, Kidman’s loving wife that cracks first in Martin’s game is aces, fully committed to Lanthimos’ deadpan humor and naturalism. Though most of the dialogue is awkward and strained small talk, it all contributes to a bigger picture and makes our everyday conversations seems just as ridiculous.
There’s no role for science or routine in this world, only the primal (and often basest) of instincts to survive. It plastered with symbolism from top to bottom making a puzzle within a puzzle as Martin and Steven share the Blue Jay Cafe together, Anna’s defining moment comes in the Red Fox Grille, and the two kids are responsible for walking the dog and watering the plants- each contributing to the hierarchy of the story leading to the killing of a sacred deer.
Nature as symbols shouldn’t come as a surprise in a Lanthimos production. Humans turning into animals if they can’t find their mate was the major plot to The Lobster. Even if inadvertent in Sacred Deer which used real locations in Cincinnati, the intricate world-building can’t be ignored.
A brilliant reimagining of the home invasion and revenge genre, The Killing of Sacred Deer will be remembered for years to come.